Is Electricity The Right Fuel?

This question was sparked (excuse the pun) by a conversation I had with a neighbor last night. He works as a Distributed Generation Manager for Con Edison in NYC, and so he’s very knowledgeable and familiar with the current (more puns!) electrical distribution grid, it’s ability to incorporate ‘DG’ (solar panels, windmills, etc.) and it’s capacity now and in the foreseeable future.

While he is a supporter of the movement towards renewable energy sources broadly, he is skeptical/bordering on discouraging when it comes to electrical cars and our ability as a society to support them. “For the system we have, we use way too much electricity now – your car and the 250 others in the area are fine now, but what’s going to happen when there’s 10,000 cars plugging in? 1 million? The grid simply couldn’t deliver that energy. And don’t talk about building new transmission lines – no one wants them, no politicians will let them come through their districts. Look at what’s going on in Old Tappan right now (where a proposed electrical sub-station has drawn the ire of local residents).” It’s been an issue on the table for years now, and according to my neighbor there is still no consensus or movement toward a viable solution.

I countered that I thought electricity was still a more efficient and environmentally-sound way to power automobiles because the distribution system – ok, while old and in need of upgrading – didn’t have nearly the negative impact that the liquid fuel distribution system does, and that the energy use model is more efficient (in that it only ‘costs’ me $.03/mile in electricity, while gas costs me $.13/mile). His response was that “right now, the electricity that comes into our houses is only 30% efficient – meaning a full 70% of it gets lost en route from Canada or Upstate where it is generated – and we lack the ability to make that more efficient without running new high-voltage transmission lines, which would have a negative environmental impact.”  To which I opened and then closed my mouth.

He thinks we can get there eventually – his idea is to use electricity rates, tax credits and other financial incentives to encourage businesses, individuals and utilities to use less electricity/be more efficient than we are now – then use the additional revenue that would generate (pun!) to upgrade the transmission grid so that it can better accommodate DG (solar, wind, tidal, etc.). A DG-enabled power grid would then increase the distribution efficiency (the solar panels on my roof are, depending on the temperatures outside, about 80-95% efficient), which in turn would mean more juice to power our cars.

Sounds like a reasonable plan – but he and I and the rest of us recognize that even mentioning the idea of “raising rates” is a non-starter in a recession. Frustrating that – I wish we could make it a topic of discussion. I wish we did have political leaders who were strong enough to say “Hey, cowboy-up people – sacrificing for a better future is what this country is all about, so stop the whining and let’s all pay a penny or two more per kWh”.

At the end of the day I still think that electricity is the sound strategic choice here – no doubt it is true that our system couldn’t handle a huge, sudden influx of electrical cars on the market, but that isn’t likely to happen anyways. It is a long-term solution, and long-term electricity is a fantastic source of power because it can be produced here, is mobile, can be generated in a number of renewable, carbon-free ways, and holds the promise for additional technological breakthroughs to make our use of it more efficient.

But that’s from the 10,000 foot view – it was interesting and eye-opening to hear my neighbor’s very different view from down on the ground, where oil-filled cable transmission lines can’t be run along the interstate medians, and it’s a patchwork process just to keep our ancient grid up and running, with no money or will to take the steps required to improve the situation.


2 responses to “Is Electricity The Right Fuel?

  1. Yes, Gordon There are definitely a lot of hurdles to overcome, but I think we’ll get there. I beleive it will take a combination of actions to do it, not just “we need to build more power plants and upgrade transmission lines” There are lot’s of companies developing new “smart grid” technologies, the use of “Vehicle To Grid” power can be part of it, increasing the number of individuals with solar electric systems like you will also help, and slowly we’ll get there. Take you for instance, I don’t know how many KW your solar system is, but you probably need less power from your utility than your neighbor does and you have an electric car! I know everyone cannot afford a solar system, but as the prices come down and there are tax credits available, these systems will become more affordable. It won’t solve the problem by itself, but all these things will add up.

  2. There is huge excess capacity at night when most cars charge. Sounds like he never heard of Time Of Use metering, differential rates have amazing motivational power. And his efficiency numbers are way low. I’ll have to do some research, but I doubt even NYC’s grid is that wasteful.

    I think this guy is just old school. Tell me, did he look like he graduated from engineering school in the last ten years?

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