July 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

The most obvious benefit of electric vehicles (EV’s) is the replacement of imported oil with electricity.  The zero emissions at the tailpipe are another plus, but as is often pointed out, the problem is merely shifted to the power generating plant.  Carbon sequestration is more tractable at such locations than at the vehicle.

A relatively less known fact is that electric vehicles use less energy than conventional cars.  To be specific, EV’s expend fewer units of energy to travel the same distance.  This is important because simply using less energy to receive the same gratification is a powerful arrow in our carbon mitigation quiver.  So, how much less energy do they in fact use?

In a departure from blogs of the past, we will calculate this right here.  We will use the following facts and assumptions:

  • A gallon of gasoline has 116,100 BTU which equals 34 kWh
  • The average car being replaced delivers 35 miles per gallon
  • For years the dogma has been that EV’s use 0.2 kWh per mile.  Nissan claims that the Leaf averages 0.25 kWh per mile.  As in all electric and hybrid cars, stop and go gives better mileage than continuous operation.  So, that number could be higher in some cases.  We will use the 0.25 number for this exercise.
  • Refining oil to give gasoline consumes 20% of the energy in the oil
  • Coal fired plants have efficiency of 40% (by using coal not gas we are being conservative, but this figure is that of newer supercritical combustors)
  • Electricity lost in transmission is 8%
  • Energy to get the oil out of the ground washes with coal mining.  Had we used the less conservative gas source for electricity, the offset would have been precisely correct

So, energy losses for gasoline prior to being consumed in the vehicle are 20%.  Energy used after combustion is:  34 kWh in a gallon divided by 35miles to the gallon, further divided by 0.8, equals 1.25 kWh per mile

Energy losses for EV’s are 60% at the generating plant, minus 8% in transmission, equals 32%.  Energy used by EV’s equals 0.25/0.32 equals 0.78 kWh per mile

Ratio of these two puts it at 1.6.  In other words, a conventional vehicle uses 60% more energy as an EV for the same purpose.  Is this exactly right, probably not, but it is not off by much.  The key take away remains that the EV advantage has a facet that is not commonly recognized in quantitative terms.

Implications to other oil replacement means:  The other principal avenues to replacing oil for transportation are:  natural gas fired vehicles, biofuels and gas-to-liquids derived fuel.  For the latter two, the energy used to produce is certainly worse than for conventional gasoline or diesel.  So, the EV advantage holds in this regard.  Natural gas powered vehicles offer some interesting possibilities.  The energy to produce should be somewhat less than for gasoline.  But the intriguing possibility for additional efficiency is in taking advantage of the high octane rating of around 125.  Diesel type compression ratios (14 to 22) would certainly provide more work per unit volume of gas, although I know of no move to capitalize on this opportunity.  But the sheer inefficiency of the Carnot Cycle will doom it to always compare unfavorably with EV’s.

The foregoing notwithstanding, oil replacement is too important an objective to not pursue all the alternatives.  For one, the alternatives discussed can be retrofitted to the current fleet.  EV entry will necessarily be slow and conventional vehicles will continue to be built.  We need to provide alternatives to imported oil to power them.

Implications to federal targets on vehicle mileage:  A recent story reports on negotiations between the White House and the auto industry on mileage standards.  The proposed target of 56.2 mpg by 2025 is almost double of the average today.  On the face of it, the only real impact of EV’s is that of an effectively very high mileage to offset the guzzlers.  I am not clear on how they calculate the mpg for EV’s given that no liquid fuel is involved except for Plug-In Hybrids when not in electric drive mode.  One way to do it would be to use the data shown above.

The Nissan Leaf drives 100 miles using 0.24 X 100 = 24 kWh.  Gasoline has 34 kWh per gallon.  So the gasoline equivalent of 24 kWh is 24/34 = 0.705 gallons.  So, the equivalent mpg for the Leaf is 100/0.705 = 141.8 miles per gallon.

The mileage target has two purposes:  reduce import of oil and reduce emissions.  The latter is recognized in that EV’s have zero tailpipe emissions, but we need also to take into account that the overall energy used is less.  Since the majority of electricity is produced using fossil fuels, using less per mile driven is a direct reduction in fossil fuel based emissions.   This somehow needs to be recognized in the mileage target debate.


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  • good information thanks for sharing your article.

  • Winston Saffell Caldwell says:

    The actual energy used on the road by electric cars is about 0.25 Kw per mile, regardless of the generating plant efficiency. Current city mileage for gasoline cars is about 25 miles per gallon, which equals 1.36 KWH/mile. This is 5.44 times the energy that an electric car uses!.

  • Winston Saffell Caldwell says:

    Correction: “0.25 KW per mile” should read “0.25 KWH per mile”

  • Robert Pinschmidt says:

    It is worth emphasizing the role of efficiency. A non-plug-in Prius hybrid shares the efficiency of regenerative breaking with the plug-in version and pure EVs and gets 50 mpg. 34 kwh per gal/50 mpg/0.8 = 0.85 kwh/mi, less than 10% higher than the pure EV’s 0.78 kwh/mi.

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