Run Cars on Green Electricity, Not Natural Gas

As a fossil fuel, natural gas is susceptible to the same problems we see in oil, whereas electric cars powered by green energy can solve both economic and environmental problems.

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With the dramatic increase in oil prices earlier this year translating into higher prices at the gas pump in the United States, concerns over U.S. dependence on foreign oil are once again part of the national discussion on energy security. Combined with the growing understanding that carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are driving global climate change, the debate is now focused on how to restructure the U.S. transport system to solve these two problems. While the idea of running U.S. vehicles on natural gas has lately received a great deal of attention, powering our cars with green electricity is a more sensible option on all fronts — national security, efficiency, climate stabilization and economics.

Having a fleet of natural gas–powered vehicles (NGVs) would simply replace U.S. dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on natural gas, another fossil fuel. The United States has scarcely 3 percent of the world’s proved natural gas reserves, yet even without the increased demand that would result from an NGV fleet, the country already consumes nearly a quarter of the world’s natural gas. At current rates of consumption, U.S. proved reserves would only meet national demand for another nine years.

U.S. natural gas production has remained relatively constant over the last two decades and is unlikely to increase over the long run, despite growing consumption. Consequently, any rise in demand is likely to be met by increasing imports. Since the late 1980s, U.S. net imports of natural gas—primarily from Canada—have tripled. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that by 2016 the majority of U.S. natural gas imports will come from outside North America.

With Russia and Iran topping the list of countries with the largest proved reserves of natural gas, a growing reliance on imports would increase the strategic vulnerability of the United States. These two nations — which along with 14 others collectively control nearly three fourths of the world’s natural gas reserves — are members of a Gas Exporting Countries Forum that was established in 2001. While there is no direct evidence that these countries are seeking to form a natural gas cartel, at the Forum’s 2005 annual meeting they discussed how to maintain a satisfactorily high natural gas price. For more natural gas production and consumption statistics, see the tables listed on the EPI Web site.

Just like oil, natural gas is a finite, nonrenewable resource. This means that switching to a fleet of NGVs would be at best a short-term fix. As natural gas becomes more difficult to obtain and more costly, a fleet of NGVs and the 20,000 or so natural gas refueling stations that would be required to support them would simply be abandoned.

A better investment is one that supports a fleet of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), such as the Chevy Volt slated for sale in 2010, which can use the existing electric infrastructure. A study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that if all U.S. automobiles were PHEVs, the current U.S. infrastructure could provide power for more than 70 percent of the fleet. Battery charging would occur mostly at night, when demand for electricity is low. In the emerging energy economy — an economy built on domestic wind, solar and geothermal energy sources — the greening of the grid by replacing fossil fuel–based electrical generation will also be a greening of the transport system. Beyond the grid, distributed power systems — solar cells on rooftops, for example — could also be used to power PHEVs.

With today’s energy mix, PHEVs running on electricity from the grid are nearly three times more efficient than NGVs on a “well-to-wheel” basis—that is, when considering the full life cycle of the energy source, from fuel extraction to combustion to vehicle propulsion. This is because internal combustion engines, such as those used in natural gas vehicles and in today’s gas-powered automobile fleet, are incredibly inefficient. Only 20 percent or so of the energy in the fuel is used to move the vehicle. The other 80 percent is wasted as heat. Thus, choosing electric vehicles over NGVs can sharply reduce energy demand.

This important fact seems to have escaped T. Boone Pickens, the legendary oil tycoon from Texas who is now promoting a plan to replace natural gas in the electric power sector with wind-generated electricity and use the freed up natural gas to power a fleet of NGVs. Burning natural gas in a new combined cycle power plant is three times as efficient as burning natural gas in a car. Even including electrical losses from transmission, distribution, and battery charging, running a car on electricity from a natural gas power plant is more than twice as efficient. Keeping natural gas in the electric sector to help power a fleet of PHEVs is therefore the logical choice. Wind-generated electricity should replace electricity from coal-fired power plants, the most polluting power source.

Under normal driving conditions, well-to-wheel carbon dioxide emissions for vehicles running on electricity from natural gas–fired power plants are one fourth as high as emissions from cars directly burning natural gas. Since a PHEV operating in electric-only mode has no tailpipe emissions, electrifying transport would move the majority of carbon emissions from millions of vehicles to centralized electricity-generating plants, greatly simplifying the task of controlling emissions. As fossil-based power generation is replaced with wind and solar power, cumulative carbon emissions from centralized power facilities will be greatly reduced.

Carbon pollution is not the only environmental concern. Over the last decade, the decline in U.S. conventional natural gas production has been offset by turning to more unconventional sources, such as coalbed methane, tight sandstones, and gas shales. Between 1998 and 2007, this unconventional production increased from 28 to 47 percent of total output. Growing reliance on gas shales in particular is raising concerns about water consumption and contamination. Extracting gas from this source involves hydraulic fracturing, a process that injects water, sand, and chemicals into the shale layer at extremely high pressures. The process can use millions of gallons of water per extraction well and is known to leak chemicals into surrounding aquifers. The Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection for New York City recently wrote to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation voicing concerns that drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation will contaminate New York City’s watershed, jeopardizing drinking water. Opposition to unconventional production is likely to rise as gas companies attempt to expand operations into increasingly sensitive areas.

On economics, driving with electricity is far cheaper than driving with gasoline or natural gas. The average new U.S. car can travel roughly 30 miles on a gallon of gasoline, which cost $3.91 in July 2008 (the latest date for which comparable price data for natural gas is available). Traveling the same distance with natural gas cost around $2.51, while with electricity, using the existing electrical generation mix, it cost around 73 cents.

In addition to being cheaper, electricity is less vulnerable to price shocks than natural gas. Electricity is generated from many different energy sources, so the impact of a quick rise in the price of any one fuel is usually tempered by stable prices for other fuels. In the new renewable energy economy, electricity prices will be insulated against fuel shocks, since energy from the wind and the sun is abundant and free.

While the price of residential electricity in the United States has increased only 30 percent since 1995, the price of natural gas has more than tripled due to rising demand and production costs. With the fast-industrializing economies of China and India expected to compete with the United States for natural gas, prices will likely continue their sharp upward trend.

Choosing natural gas to power our vehicles would send the United States down the same expensive and inefficient path that created our addiction to foreign oil and our dependence on a resource that will ultimately run out. Choosing green electricity can take us in a new direction — one that leads to improved energy security and a stabilizing climate.

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7/11/2014 4:31:50 AM

all cars should be elec.....why are we doing this to or air,like what do we have for a gov....realey,gas and the likes is being used,because those in power what power and greed,we keep those in power,its geting to the point were we may need to spill blood and over throw the gov.......fuck ya,get or own army,and we well fucking lose some of or own,but the blood spilled will get back or independence,over throw the gov,take back or or country form the inside out,then the rest of the fucking world,look at the blood spilled every day,when peopple are dieing because of how the gov runs things ,its time to make the world back to,the ones who are gona run it the way god meant it to be run,do it now dont let or gov and the wrold gov get any more powerfull.the time is now,dont wait till its on you door step to feel the same way.

7/14/2010 1:37:01 PM

Retired from the solar business now, it is bothersome that so many myths about photovoltaic systems abound. There are high sun hour days in many regions in the country with high rate utilities where these systems make economic sense. A basic system installed by a competitive professional solar contractor provides 50 to 75 percent of the high tier rate electric needs of the average modest home. These now cost $10,000 to $15,000 depending on the size of the system after rebates and tax credit incentives from local utilities and government programs. Do not believe the average cost per watt DOE government statistics by state, as they are just that, averages. For example in Central California's Big Valley with its 100 F plus summers the utility rates average more than 20 cents a KWH giving a payback of less than 7 years for the system. Moreover, every time the utility raises its rates the payback time shortens. Solar is less practical in many parts of the country but severely underutilized in areas where it does make sense.

khary sudan
5/4/2009 10:12:38 AM

The author of this article must have a bias against the internal combustion engine. Natural gas burns pretty clean. America has plenty according to the government. Increased demand will bring more online and more online will lower the price. The problem with electric vehicle propulsion is that electric will not power over the road tractor trailer rigs. These trucks consume 70 % of all our petroleum imports. The economy cannot dispense with our heavy transport vehicles. Electric powered vehicles cannot possibly replace the heavy trucks in the economy any more than batteries can replace rockets on the space shuttle. Its physically impossible. The author of the article should explain how electric batteries can power our transport fleet. Cars and light trucks use less than 30% of our oil imports. What about the other 70% of the economy? Mother Earth editors should vett their articles better. The magazine's bias is showing.

3/22/2009 2:27:59 PM

We don't have enough green energy to make the electricity needed for car batteries. Obama's energy plan to "double wind and solar energy" over the next 10 years would take us from 1% to 2% of energy production. That's just a drop in the bucket and will do nothing to address the US future energy needs or to wean us off of foreign crude. Instead of calling wind and solar "alternative energy," they should be called "supplemental energy." The only green energy available to generate the kind of electricity needed would be from nuclear power plants and from hydroelectric plants. I have a hunch you don't consider those green. The answer for the first half of this century will be to diversify our vehicle fleet. Mandating that federal vehicles run on natural gas would be a start. ATT announced they'll be buying 8,000 natural gas vehicles. Oklahoma is considering a bill to mandate that their state and municipal entities buy natural gas powered cars, and make the fueling stations available to the public. That's a start. Large companies, states and local governments will have to act on their own if the Obama administration won't. As oil prices climb back over $50 on production cuts from OPEC, the world will find itself again held hostage for oil. OPEC is making plans to capture a large share of the trillions in stimulus dollars. It'd be nice to see the US put our collective foot down and say "No more!"

3/13/2009 12:41:03 PM

There is NO "green electricity" available to me and probably won't be in the foreseeable future. Yet there is natural gas available that IS NOT a "fossil fuel" generated by my local treatment plant. Pushing for electric vehicles will only result in more environmental problems. Mining of lithium and cadmium and other more exotic and toxic chemicals are hardly environmentally benign, yet they are necessary to power electric vehicles. Electric transmission looses nearly 50% of the energy in transmission, and even more in conversion to battery power. The result: more burning of coal. Natural gas (methane) can and has been generated from organic waste for decades in quantities sufficient to be commercially viable. Most modern garbage dumps actually harvest natural gas. Much of the natural gas that comes from drilling is actually from biologic sources, referred to as biogenic gas. This natural gas is often found by testing at the surface for seeps- in other words it is escaping into the atmosphere slowly anyway, and is contributing to the current atmospheric content of greenhouse gases. Your premise is wrong, as you are sadly uninformed about the subject.