First things first: electric vehicles are greener than conventional gas- and diesel-powered internal combustion engines no matter how you slice it. Even if 100 percent of your EV’s energy comes from dirty, emissions-heavy coal-fired power, your electric car will still have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than a gasoline-consuming equivalent. That being said, the coming EV revolution raises some extremely important questions about skyrocketing energy demand and consumption and its associated ecological impact–questions that need to be addressed with some urgency. The world is switching over to EVs at a breakneck pace that’s only going to continue to speed up as more countries adopt EV-friendly policies, ramp up charging infrastructure, and the EV sector continues to see technological improvements that make their vehicles more attractive and more affordable for the public. In the UK, policy-makers are pushing to ban new gas-powered vehicles by just 2030. In the U.S., President Joe Biden is on an EV-spending spree that could boost the country’s EV fleet by 40 percent. And Tesla is trying to take over the entire world.
For utilities and other bodies in charge of grid and energy infrastructure, this means that the race is on to improve and adapt current infrastructure to meet with coming demand. In order to make the EV transition smooth and as eco-friendly as possible, it’s imperative that we not only continue to improve our grid capabilities and capacities but that the expansion of renewable energy keeps pace with increasing energy demand.
The key to powering a countrywide EV fleet without overwhelming power grids and eating up more energy than ever before lies in energy efficiency. While the topic is decidedly un-sexy and seems trivial compared to other, flashier components of the global energy transition and the battle against climate change, energy efficiency is a monumentally important piece of the puzzle. “Using energy more efficiently accounts for the largest share — nearly 40% — of the reductions in heat-trapping emissions needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement,” Axios reported in October. And while EVs are huge energy guzzlers, they are much, much more energy-efficient than combustion engines–up to 5 to 6 times more energy-efficient. But the energy that powers them needs to become more efficient as well for this to work.
In our current energy landscape, where 97 percent of power is generated through a thermal system (“one where we mostly burn stuff or split atoms”) nearly two-thirds of the energy created is lost as wasted heat thanks to the second law of thermodynamics. By comparison, while wind and solar lose a small amount of energy in transmission, the vast majority of the energy created is actually used.
“So here’s a thought experiment,” a Bloomberg article posited this week. “What if the entire U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet (currently about 270 million cars and trucks) were electrified by 2030 and we expanded wind and solar generation at a rapid pace while eliminating coal power, at the same time?” The answer? Not only will U.S. carbon emissions be slashed by nearly 30 percent, but our entire system also gets a huge energy efficiency boost.
If current predictions for solar and wind growth hold true (with solar rising 20 percent and wind 10 percent by 2030) and coal is eliminated in the same time frame (which is not a far-fetched idea), with natural gas filling in the gaps, “despite the electrification of light-duty vehicles, inputs to the grid actually fall slightly” writes Bloomberg. “The replacement of coal-fired power by more efficient gas turbines and the rapid expansion of non-thermal renewable power means useful electrical energy rises by more than a third anyway.”
If nothing else, these hopeful figures are a good reminder that when it comes to a world-ending hyper-threat the size and breadth of global warming, there is no silver bullet solution. The answer to saving ourselves and saving our planet lies in incremental (but urgent) change across sectors. All these little improvements really add up, and they are all essential. EVs in and of themselves can only go so far without better, cleaner, more efficient power production. And Leaf-driving consumers can only do so much without the help of the government and the private sector. We all have a part to play, and we can all play our part.