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* Vehicle Electrification Cost Effectiveness

Posted on January 19th, 2009 by Dave Johnson. Filed under Energy.

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Over the past few days my wife and I have been living without propane - due to a miscommunication between myself and the company that is supposed to take care of keeping our large propane tank filled with said propane - and subsequently there has been no stove, hot water, or heat. It was pretty tumultuous until I found a few spare 20lb propane tanks that we have since connected to our system. In case you were wondering just cooking one small meal and keeping the house at 15 degrees Celsius drained the one tank in under 24 hours.

Primary Energy Consumption

This interruption in energy flow to my house got me thinking about how much energy from fossil fuels is used in the home and that compares to fuel used for transportation. I found the numbers a little surprising.

A quick Google revealed the following stats for primary energy consumption by sector from 1949 to 2007 (in trillion Btu) in the US care of the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Residential Commercial Industrial Transportation Electricity
6,688 3,898 21,435 29,012 40,567

Or in pictures it looks more like this:

Of course the transportation number includes trains, planes and automobiles (including trucks) so what we should really look at is residential automobile usage. Again from the EIA data but approximating 2008 fuel consumption at 133 billion gallons of gasoline we arrive at about 15,000 trillion Btu’s of primary energy for only residential automobile usage. Updating the chart above we can see that the residential + commercial sector and residential transportation sector are much closer in size now:

What is the end use of the primary energy for the residential sector? The lions share of that energy is going towards oil or gas furnaces and water heaters. It is a similar situation for the commercial sector. But of course the industrial sector has a number of different uses for fossil fuels.

Energy Usage

The first thing that I notice about those numbers is that the total primary energy use in residential and commercial sectors commercial is almost 66% of the total primary energy used for residential automobiles. So if instead of buying a fancy new electric or hybrid car for over $30,000 people were to purchase an electric hot water heater, stove, and / or furnace, it would be equivalent to replacing about 66% of the cars on the road with all electrics. That is with no corporate bail outs, no huge incentive programs for companies or tax payers and no huge technological barriers like building new types of batteries. The problem is that people never see your electric furnace and you don’t get that added value of it being a status symbol like a green car.

I imagine the numbers look pretty similar in Canada and maybe in Europe too where gas is much more common in the home and car usage is lower. However, the lifecycle efficiency of generating electricity centrally from fossil fuels is sligtly higher than burning the fossil fuel in the automobile due to the relative low efficiency of the internal combustion engine.


Of course there are still other considerations to make before converting to electric cars such as shortages of materials used in magnets for motors such as dysprosium and, maybe more importantly, most electric cars will be charged with electricty generated from fossil fuels for the forseable future. The exception there is of course Better Place.

Looking at those numbers from the EIA if the US were to convert all vehicles over to pure electric it would mean increasing the current electricity generation capacity by something like 38%. That is about the increase in electricity generation from 1989 to 2007.

So if you are really thinking of getting an electric car, or even a hybrid first think about getting an electric appliance instead or, even better, get a bicycle and get some exercise :)

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6 Responses to “Vehicle Electrification Cost Effectiveness”

  1. Tom Raftery Says:

    Interesting post Dave - one thing I think you may have overlooked is the contribution EVs will have in stabilising the grid.

    Most EVs will recharge overnight (when demand is low and the contribution from wind is highest) so there will be little extra generation required to charge them.

    Furthermore, with v2g technologies, it is entirely feasible that cars will further stabilise the grid by selling electricity back to the grid at times of peak demand (acting as a distributed battery bank for the country).

  2. Dave Johnson Says:

    Yes I agree that there are a lot other benefits of EVs in concert with a smart grid and fully support the idea as one very important step towards a low carbon economy. I am just suggesting that there may be other significantly cheaper and technologically simpler routes to electrification and energy efficiency.

  3. Matt Denman Says:

    Wow, I guess cold weather is to blame. We use propane here for cooking and we do not having running hot water. We have no ability to generate heat in the place we live, so no propane is used for that either. We hook a 14lb tank to our stove directly and cook every meal with that and the tank will last about 2 months.

    One 14lb tank cost about USD 11.

    Keep in mind that living in the Philippines means we dont ever need heat and not having running hot water never really seems to be a big deal. If I want a hot shower I take it around 3pm. If I take a shower in the morning, its a cold shower but not ice cold - just enough to wake you up for the day.

  4. Dave Johnson Says:

    As I think about it more it more electric appliances can have the same impact on stabilizing the grid. You could have batteries in your appliances and / or with a smart grid consumption can be controlled more with dynamic pricing.

  5. null is not an object » Blog Archive » Sexing Up Home Appliances Says:

    [...] few days ago I questioned the cost effectiveness of vehicle electrification as a means to get petrol cars off the road in favour of their electric counterparts that use [...]

  6. Alex Says:

    Phantom energy

    Talking about home energy, particularly electricity. Have you ever wondered how much electricity it takes to recharge a BlackBerry (or such) PDA each day.

    Well, the answer you will be pleased to know is a lot less than you might think. It is 12,5 cents per year,

    But here is the kicker, a typical user will waste $1,65, using their charger as a miniature heater waiting for its device to start taking a charge again.

    Individually we may not see this as a problem, but it is a big issue in totality. We are pouring billions of $’s into the air on chargers playing heater …

    Please join us to do understand this issue, and put an end to this silly waste:

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