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Electric cars and carbon intensity April 1, 2015

Posted by Maury Markowitz in electric cars.
You evil car you, you're so... so... I gawd I want one.

You evil car you! You’re so… so… oh gawd I want one.

As the regular readers of Energy Matters -the world’s most beautiful supermodels- are no doubt aware, I have a thing about electric vehicles. So when a story on the topic came up on CBC Radio One the other day my ears perked up. And when it turned out the story in question starts right here in Toronto, well, I’m off to the races!

And they say the press is left-leaning?

I’ll get into the report in a little depth in a bit, but first I want to point out the curious reaction to the article in the press…

The article talks about lowing the electrical system’s carbon intensity and at what threshold certain things, like electric cars become less carbon polluting than a normal gas engine. That number is 600 tonnes/GWh. or between 500 and 700 to be more accurate.

Canada’s electrical supply, on the whole, is about 180 tonnes/GWh. So, electric cars are good for Canada. Very good.

But that’s not how it got reported…

Some of the other stories were a little more balanced…

See that “could”, “in some”, “may”? Well the article states that “could” and “some” is really “are” and “most of the western world”, so even these guys couldn’t be accused of being overly accurate. In fact, the only headline that I could find that is remotely close to the actual content of the article is this one from The Globe:

When you read that headline, you probably go “duh, obviously”, because, well, duh, obviously. And instead of spinning this to be “electric cars are bad”, as the first group of headlines do, you’ll probably conclude the solution is to close down the heavily polluting power plants and replace them with something newer.

I mean, duh, obviously.

Ok, some numbers

It’s time to talk about the numbers. You knew this was coming, so no groaning!

Kennedy’s paper on electric cars is an offshoot of earlier work. Earlier, Kennedy and his colleges published a paper considering the carbon intensity of urban centers, including everything from heating to transportation. They noted that electrifying everything only works to lower GHG’s under certain circumstances, but these are  easily summarized; you have a net benefit when the carbon intensity of your electrical supply is less than 600 tonnes/GWh.

So what does that mean, exactly? Well a typical coal plant is around 1000 tonnes/GWh, so simply put, if most of your power comes from coal, you’re better off burning natural gas to heat your home than using a georeturn heat pump, in spite of the later using less energy overall. And, by the same logic, you’d be better off in a hybrid car then an electric one. But that’s if your power is “basic” coal, if it’s anything else, literally anything else, you’re better off electric. New coal plants are around 750, so if you mix in anything else you can start to push that number down. Natural gas plants are around 470, for instance. Everything else is way, way below that. Wind turbines are 12. Hydro is 4.

So where are we today? Well Canada as a whole is 176. That’s right, way below the threshold in the paper. Only Brazil beats us. So for Canada, as a whole, we should be electrifying transit as rapidly as we possibly can. Even the “bad places”, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are just above the limit, around 750, which means they have cleaner sources in their mix. So all they have to do to get well under the 600 limit is upgrade their plants.

For the majority of my readers, in the United States, how are you doing? 500, right under the line. But that hides one very important point; that number was 600 in 1990. And that 500 is in 2011, a period in which the installation of gas, wind and solar was peaking. I’m not sure I’m reading the numbers correctly, but if I am, that number has been falling ever since and is now down around 450. So, the US should also be electrifying posthaste.

And perhaps surprising to no one, the EU27 is well under 400 already.

Graph of the carbon intensity for nationwide electrical generation for a sample of industrialized nations

Carbon intensity for a sample of major industrial countries. You want to be below the grey bar. Canada is the grey line near the bottom.

So where do you not want to electrify? India, Australia, China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. With the exception of Australia, I suspect no one reading this is surprised by this list. But again, looking at the graphs provided in the paper, most of these are decreasing, and in some cases, rapidly. While many other countries are currently above the 600 threshold, a number are falling below it, although some will take longer than others. This is they point I was making in my other article about the changing grid and what it means for ecars.

The big picture is perfectly summed up in the article:

The good news is that the global average carbon intensity of electricity is already below the 600-ton threshold

To be exact, it was 536 in 2011, and has fallen since. Better yet, for the first time in recorded history, carbon intensity is not simply a proxy for economic intensity; in 2014 worldwide carbon intensity fell in spite of an expanding economy. If this remains true this year, it’s a very good sign. So, very simply, ecars are better in most places, and will continue to get better over time.

And it’s not like this number is even remotely difficult to reach in most cases, to the point that Kennedy notes:

To many, the goal of countries achieving electricity production under the 600-ton threshold may seem quite unambitious.

By the way, neither paper actually determines the lifecycle cost of ecars, that’s quoted from another paper which I don’t have. I’m trying to get that one so I can dig into it a little more.

All the news that’s fit to spin

“Electric Cars Are Doing More Harm Than Good” Professor Warns.

No, he doesn’t. If there is a better illustration the spin the press puts on any story about GHG, I can’t imagine it.

I’m sure there’s Telsa owners getting this shoved in their face as “proof” they’re too green for their own good, while they fill up on wind power.

In my own personal case, the 12 panels on my roof will easily power all the miles I’d put on it… so if anyone wants to send me a Tesla I’m all for it!


1. MikeYoung - December 7, 2017

I’m a little disappointed that in your energy mix above you didn’t include nuclear which, in Ontario, is the dominant power supply, and Canada’s most populated province.
It demonstrates an anti-nuclear bias, or ignorance, which then calls into question your impartiality.
And according to the IPCC (AR5 WG3) hydro is NOT 4, it is 24, and nuclear is only 12. Your numbers seem to be from the IPCC AR4 (2011) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources)
Also, if the world moves to 16.5m e-cars by 2025, it will need round about 39,600 GWe of DISPATCHABLE electricity. Currently there in only 227GWe of INSTALLED solar (at CF<20%) and 490 GWe of wind (at CF<30%).
And given that gets only 16% from RE (92% of that hydro), 12% from Nuclear, and 67% from fossils, there is going to be alot of CO2 being produced.
BUT admittedly, not as much as from Petrol!!

Maury Markowitz - December 7, 2017

I’m sorry, I’m not sure I know what “energy mix above” you are referring to? Perhaps you are referring to numbers in one of the sources I link to?

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