Electric vehicles are undoubtably becoming more mainstream. Though EVs sales in the US only represent about 1% of total vehicle sales, that tide is quickly changing as governments commit to some form of a ban the new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles and large automakers commit to offer electric options.
The statement I see very often in the comments of my videos from contrarians regarding EVs is that they are no better than fossil fuel powered vehicles since they are charged from the grid, which they say, is powered by coal. This raises the question, are EVs really powered by coal?
The short answer is: it depends on where you live in the world. If you live in a country like Mexico, 80% of power generated comes from non-renewable sources like petroleum, coal, and nuclear. China is in a similar situation, producing about 70% from non-renewables - 63% coming from coal. Even in a developed country like Australia who has access to a lot of sunlight, is still powered by non-renewables, representing 87% of power generation in the country.
Mexican power: https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=MEX
Chinese power: https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=CHN
Australia power: https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=AUS
However, if you live in Norway, 100% of your electricity is generated by water through hydroelectric means. They’ve also been investing heavily in off-shore wind and underwater turbines. Canada, too, is investing into renewable sources of power for the country. As of 2016, Canada generated 648.4 TWh of electricity, of which 66% came from renewable sources - and 59% of their renewable sources are coming from hydroelectric.
Canadian power: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/facts/electricity/20068
For this video, we’re going to dive into detail over what the US energy mix is and just how much comes from non-renewable sources like coal.
If we look at a graph of US power generation from 1965-2018, we instantly get an idea of where our power is coming from. The big blue line is coal. As you can see, coal hit its peak in 2007 with just over 2 million killowatthours generated and has been taking a sharp decline since then. This coal decline is in direct correlation to natural gas’s sharp incline, taking over as the dominant energy source in 2015 with 1.3 million killowatthours generated.
When you compare all renewable to non-renewable sources, they represent only 16% of the US energy mix. So, for those that say EVs are powered by coal - only by 28%. It’s more accurate to say that EVs are powered by natural gas.
This begs the question, why aren’t renewables better represented in the US? Three words: supply and demand. Lack of demand keeps costs high. High demand typically drives research and development (R&D). R&D creates efficiencies usually result in lower costs and economies of scale, which consequently spur on even demand. This is certainly the case for any new technology. Remember the cost of early mobile phones in the 80s? The Motorola DynaTAC in 1983 cost just under $4,000, factoring in inflation that’s over $10,000 in today’s money. You can now find smartphones for $200-$300.
I expect renewable sources of power generation to follow a similar ubiquitous trajectory. Here’s why: EVs are powered by electricity. As more people choose electric powertrains over fossil fuel variants, the demand for powering an EV at home will increase. If an owner sees that home electricity costs increase, they will look into ways to reducing those costs. What is the most cost effective and efficient way for a home owner to generate their own power? You probably guess it - solar power and home battery storage.
Electric vehicles will likely singlehandedly drive solar and battery storage costs - resulting in a vehicle powered completely by sun. In fact, even if an EV owner ops to not install a home solar system, large scale power providers are also driving renewable sources of energy.
Duke energy has committed to adding 700 MW of solar energy by 2022. NextEra Energy currently generates 2,000 MW of solar energy, 14,000 MW of wind energy, and has 100 MW of battery storage in their territory. Though some might say its important, these companies aren’t driven to save the world from climate change - they’re driven by profits. Power providers are learning that after up front costs, renewable energy power generators are extremely inexpensive and profitable. This expansion of clean energy generators only benefits the EV owner looking to power their vehicles from clean sources.
So to address the question in the title of the video, are EVs really powered by coal? If you power your vehicle from the US grid, only partially and the grid is becoming cleaner each year. If you choose to install solar and home battery storage on your home, your EV can be powered by 100% renewables - something fossil fuel vehicles will never be able to claim.
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