In my last post I started the process of debunking some of the fallacies being put forward by the electric vehicle (EV) community as part of their program to encourage people to convert to EVs while simultaneously maintaining their NIMBY attitudes towards energy generation and grid strengthening activities. As I wrote in that post, my desire is not to pooh-pooh the transition to an electric-powered transportation system or slow the transition to electric vehicles, both of which I believe are imperative. Rather, my intention is to demonstrate why the transition will need to be accompanied by a ramping up of our electrical grid and electricity supply. In my last post I debunked a widely cited number used to minimize concerns about how much electricity it will take to electrify our transportation system. Today I want to address two more of their talking points. The ones I plan on addressing are:
- that the median commute is only around 7 kilometers, and
- a favourite trope that electric vehicles will not have an effect on the electric grid as all the vehicles can be re-charged during off-hours.
These two points are closely linked as one feeds into the other. Specifically, the argument goes that since the median commute is only 7 kilometers EV owners will not need to charge their vehicles during the day. This will theoretically leave all the re-charging to the overnight hours when electricity demand is low and in doing so avoid the need to build up electrical capacity in the system.
When the attack on me by the EV community began the proponents of EVs were particularly quick to send me to a report “Electrifying the BC Vehicle Fleet” by the Pacific Institute for Climate (PIC). It is a useful document that make a number of useful points but also makes a number of interesting choices in how it presents data. The biggest weakness (in my mind) is its reliance on a median number for all its subsequent assertions about energy use etc…. As they point out:
In a recent report of BC driving statistics (Norton, 2008), 79% of commuters used a vehicle to get to work. The median one-way travel distance for all commuters in B.C in 2006 was only 6.5 km. This data also shows that a large portion of commuters (40.5%) travel less than 5 km to work, and that only 8% of commuters are travelling more than 30 km one way (Statistics Canada, 2006).
Now anyone who knows math and statistics knows that the median is a useful indicator, but not one upon which you will want to do statistics. When you rely on a median you inadvertently make a lot of assumptions about the underlying population. You assume the population is statistically normal and that the population is not heavily skewed. Since the median is literally the middle value it tells us nothing of interest about the population it is describing. To take an inane example, since females make up 50.4% of the Canadian population the median Canadian would be female. Using that knowledge would anyone seriously suggest that we abandon all services for men? Of course not.
When looking at the commuting population what we want to consider is whether there is a large percentage of that population that commutes a distance substantially greater than the median. As the PIC report points out, 8% of commuters travel more than 30 kilometers, one way to work. Now this might sound like an insignificant number until you realize what that that 8% represents. According to Stats Canada almost 80,000 British Columbians commute more that 35 km to work and another 28,000 commute between 30 and 35 kms to work. This means that in winter time over 100,000 electric vehicles commute greater than 30 kms to work. Given the range limitations on electric vehicles (presented in my previous blog post) that could mean more than 100,000 vehicles that will need to be plugged in during the day. That reads a bit differently than saying that the median commute is only 6.5 km doesn’t it.
Night-time-only charging of vehicles will not be as prevalent as claimed
One of the biggest selling points by the supporters of EVs is their claim that most of the vehicles will be charged overnight and therefore we don’t need to add electrical capacity. That is frankly one of the big the take-away messages from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions study. That, as I will demonstrate below, is likely not going to be the case. As I present above, a significant constituency of commuters are going to exceed the threshold where they will feel comfortable only charging overnight. Much like a driver who doesn’t want to get caught with an empty tank, most commuters are not going to want to get caught with a dead battery in the middle of the road. That means if they even come close to using half their charge on the way to work they are going to want to top up their batteries while at work because if you only have a few kilowatts leeway you are not going to want to risk running out of charge on a cold evening if there is an accident on the Trans-Canada.
Moreover, as a family man I can assure you that our car doesn’t just get parked when the commute to work is done. Rather there are activities to go to: soccer, piano, basketball, shopping, these are the things we do every night and if I have used my entire battery charge commuting to and from work then what will I have in reserve to drive the kids to their activities? Because most EV users have a second, non-EV car (80% of British households with an EV have a non-electric car as back-up. I’m still looking for Canadian stats) this is not currently much of an issue. They just use the gas guzzler for chores while using the EV for the work commute. But what happens when all the cars are electric? Then you will need to have a charged car available for you after school/work and if the drive to the soccer pitch is more than just a few kilometers that will mean having to charge your car during the day.
In winter electric vehicles need to be plugged in to keep engine (and cabin) warm
As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the big downsides of EVs in winter is the power needed to keep the engine and the cabin warm. Without an internal combustion engine pumping out excess heat, all heat will need to be electric, which will drain your batteries, that is why many sources suggest “preconditioning” your auto. Preconditioning your auto is a nice way of saying turn on the heat a half-hour early to get the engine and the cabin warm enough for use. The funny part of the article I cite is where they recommend you plug your car in at work to keep it warm. That pretty much rules out the idea that the car will not draw power from the grid during the day. Rather the car will be drawing power during the daily peak, and thus will put added strain on the electrical grid. Moreover, can you imagine the spike around 4 pm on winter workday when all the employees are preconditioning their cars in preparation for the commute home, right at the start of the evening peak in power use?
Off-hour charging and its effect on our energy supply
Finally, I want to address one of the most-misunderstood arguments about electric vehicles: that by charging them overnight we can reduce demands on our energy system. While that will be true in some cases, it ignores some pretty important points about British Columbia’s energy picture. As everyone who talks energy in BC knows the vast majority of our electricity comes from hydro-electric sources (mostly large reservoir dams). Now the good thing about a dam is that the energy is readily dispatchable, that is energy parlance for energy sources that can be immediately turned on when demand is high and readily turned off when demand slows down. In a dam if you want to get more power you just let water through the generator. Want to reduce the amount of power? Close a water supply. There are limitations, however, you can only generate as much power as you have water behind your dam.
This issue came to a head in California during their recent drought when, due to an absence of water behind the dams, hydroelectric generation dropped by 50%. To bring it closer to home, in 2015 during our West Coast drought 12 of BC Hydro’s 31 hydroelectric facilities had to be shut down due to lack of water. Now consider the idea of off-peak electricity. Under current conditions, during the off-peak hours, like in the middle of the night, BC Hydro just keeps the sluice gates closed and imports cheap power from outside of the province. Were demand to ramp up overnight (due to charging of EVs) in BC, Alberta and Washington (remember we are in a fossil fuel-free world) then the excess flow from out-of-province would become less available and we would be forced to use our hydro to meet the demand. Ramp up enough demand overnight and we would start putting excess stress on the system, essentially we would use up all the available water behind the dams. Given a multi-year drought we could have a scenario where we simply did not have enough water to generate power. As such, absolute demand for power is an important consideration in the equation. Adding extra reservoirs and more run-of-the-river (as well as geothermal) would provide the cushion necessary to get us through the dry years.
This brings us right back to where I started. Electric cars are a good thing but contrary to what the EV activists claim their mass implementation will have a significant effect on our electricity demand in BC. We will not be able to get away with charging only overnight, the increase in EV numbers will result in increased demand spikes that will require us to increase capacity, even if we could stick to charging overnight the result will draw down the levels of our existing reservoirs and leave us vulnerable to drought.
To conclude, when EV enthusiasts claim on one hand that we need to all move to EVs and on the other hand that we don’t need to build new dams or other power generating facilities you can explain to them why those are two mutually exclusive positions. In order to achieve a fossil fuel-free BC we need to ramp up the production of electricity in BC and we need to expand and strengthen our transmission system.The movement away from fossil fuels will need to be accompanied by a massive upgrade to our electrical grid and a substantial increase in electricity supply. Any activist who tells you otherwise is simply sharing their pipe dream.