News flash: Gas-powered cars use electricity too
A favorite trope of the “Don’t get me wrong, I love EVs, but...” crowd is the idea that widespread EV adoption will cause the electrical grid to “crash.” Those who follow the industry understand that this concern is overblown, to say the least. Simply scheduling charging for times of low demand (smart charging) can greatly mitigate the increased load, and once the emerging technology of bidirectional charging comes into its own, EVs are expected to become a valuable asset for the grid. It’s telling that few if any of those “sounding the alarm” about EVs’ electrical consumption seem to work for utilities, most of which are reliable boosters of EV adoption.
Above: An electric vehicle parking space. Photo: Ralph Hutter / Unsplash
But all of this is well known to those who read news coverage of the EV industry (as opposed to Facebook memes). These topics have been covered pretty extensively in the press. A subject that’s less often discussed is the fact that the oil industry is also a major consumer of electricity—so much so that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that every vehicle is in a sense an electrified vehicle. In fact, the author of a recent article in the German magazine Edison has calculated that, for every mile traveled in a legacy vehicle, you’re using about half as much electricity as you would to travel a mile in a pure EV.
We are often reminded that every product—including an EV—consumes fossil fuel, directly or indirectly. But it’s also true that every product—even a gas-guzzling SUV—consumes electricity. For example, as Julian Affeldt, drawing on a 2017 post on the blog of the Berlin-Brandenburg Electromobility Interest Group, explains, even if you heat your home with oil, methane gas or wood pellets, you’re still consuming electricity for things like control electronics, radiator valves, thermostats and pumps. There is also what’s called grey energy—energy that’s embedded in a product before you even use it. Manufacturing, transportation, installation, marketing—all of these activities consume energy, much of it in the form of electricity from the grid.
Starting at the end of the grey energy chain, we find that gas stations consume a lot of electricity—every gas station is illuminated and climate-controlled, the gas pumps need electricity to operate (a fact often ignored by those who would have us believe that ICE vehicles are better than EVs in a natural disaster), and the attached convenience store (which is what generates most of the profit) uses electricity to cool the beer, heat the hot dogs and print the lottery tickets. This is all electricity that is only used for refueling, not for driving.
Don’t public charging stations have these costs too? Of course, but most EV drivers charge at home, and the only time they’ll ever have to use a public charger is when they take a road trip. What percentage of EV drivers patronize a gas station-style public charging station? I don’t know, but I know that 100% of ICE drivers do.
Transporting fuel from the refinery to the gas station also consumes energy, most of it in the form of more fossil fuel, but a substantial amount in the form of electricity, for the operation of pipelines, pumps and (at least in Europe and Asia) electric trains.
Production of fuel—drilling, pumping, refining, more transport—requires a tremendous amount of energy. Again, much of the energy required to heat crude oil to over 400 degrees in a refinery in order to separate it into gasoline, diesel and many other useful substances comes from the oil itself. But refineries and all the other massive infrastructure of the oil industry use lots of electricity for pumps, filters, valves, illumination, computers, etc.
Legacy vehicles also need lubricating oil, AdBlue (necessary for the exhaust aftertreatment of diesel engines), filters and other consumable parts, items that EVs generally don’t need—and producing, transporting and selling all these items consumes electrons.
Now, at this point the engineer or physicist may point out that a gallon of gas contains much more potential energy than the amount required to bring it from a rock formation to a gas tank—otherwise why would we pump the stuff in the first place? And yes, producing electricity and charging EVs involves a different set of grey energy costs. But the electric car’s ace in the hole is its far greater efficiency—many times greater than that of an ICE, which wastes most of its energy as heat. So even if the amount of grey energy consumed to put a kilowatt-hour’s worth of energy into a battery were the same as that consumed to put a kWh into a gas tank, which it isn’t, the EV would still deliver more mileage bang for the energy buck.
The author of the blog post on which this article is based did some calculations (we’ve spared you the math, dear readers, but it’s there for your perusal [in German]), and concluded that, on a per-mile basis, a so-called gas or diesel vehicle consumes about half as much electricity as does a pure EV, in addition to the energy it derives from its fossil fuel. The author’s figures are from 2017, and are mostly relevant to the German market, so your mileage may vary. The point is that, while replacing an ICE vehicle with an EV obviously increases consumption of electricity by a certain amount, at the same time it reduces consumption by a smaller but substantial amount. So the argument that there won’t be enough juice to power an electric transport system—which was never strong—can join the long list of debunked anti-EV myths.