The Energy Mix

In my last post, I briefly explored the question of whether a battery electric vehicle (BEV) is ‘just a coal fired car’. Broadly speaking, the answer appears to be

  • it depends on where you live in your country, and in the world, and the makeup of the energy supply to your electricity grid; and
  • unlike internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, the electricity mix in almost every jurisdiction around the world is becoming lower emissions; worst case your BEV becomes more emissions efficient at the rate of the overall grid supply.

To the extent that BEVs are ‘coal fired vehicles’, they are becoming less so every day, month, and year. (Indeed you could argue that this is also the case with ICE vehicles, with ever stricter regulation around fuel efficiency and that is certainly laudable. There is likely a university’s worth of PhD’s in studying the topic of improvements in electrical energy supply emissions vs. improvements in ICE vehicle emissions — I’d be happy to be point at some articles that summarise the latest thinking!)

The energy supply for a BEV is by definition as diverse as your national grid. This means that while a BEV can be in part coal fired, it is also hydro fired, natural gas fired, wind fired, solar fired, wave fired, geothermal fired, biomass fired, etc. And for a number of these generation options, the energy source is decoupled from the carbon cycle.

Technically speaking, the energy supply for electricity can be made almost as local as you would like. If you do have massive national coal stores (as Australia does for example), then BEVs are a win as they enable you to power your national car fleet using a local coal — reducing the need to import crude oil from overseas, and transferring those energy sector jobs from overseas facilities closer to home. Local energy sources reduce complexity in the energy supply chain, including decoupling it from complicated foreign relations and geopolitics.

If your country has abundant supply of hydro (e.g. Norway), then you can run your national car fleet on hydro. If you’ve got North Atlantic wind (e.g. Scotland, The Netherlands), then you can run your cars on that. Waves — yep, you can use those too. And of course solar. Despite their northern location Germany is managing to make solar a significant part of their energy mix — the sun shines everywhere, and is in that way the ultimate local energy source. (Think of the sun like a nuclear reactor where the dangerous fuel and waste is stored a suitably safe 8 light minutes away.)

German electricity generation on May 25 and May 26, 2012 (from Wikipedia)

So — if you want to run your BEV on ‘clean energy’, what can be done practically speaking?

First, you could install solar and charge your car directly. There are many configurations in which this could be done involving your home, your work, batteries, etc. But this is surest way to shorten and simplify the energy pathway for your BEV.

Second, and perhaps much more practically, you could ask your electricity supplier to switch you to one of very many green energy options for your home electricity supply. And if they don’t offer a satisfactory ‘green’ product, shop the market — in many markets you can find suppliers focused on providing emissions free electricity supply. There is likely a cost boost to the kWh rate for these supplies, but again shopping around can minimise your cost.

Third, support politicians who promote legislative, regulatory, and infrastructure solutions that reduce emissions. In Australia, this is the maligned Renewable Energy Target — but this policy device is dragging us in the direction of reduced emissions from electricity generation. And by extension reduced emissions from BEVs. In a future post, we’ll talk a little about the onboard functionality that EVs (pure battery, and hybrid) carry that make them more efficient at using the energy supplied. Next time, we’ll look at the idea that it may take more electricity just to refine the petrol than to just drive the same distance in an EV. (But first a fun diversion.)