Electric Cars: Is This a Lateral Shift to Another Fossil Fuel?

As everyone who reads this knows, I drive a Toyota Prius and my gas milage is in the low 40s MPG. I enjoy it (and especially enjoy the sticker that allows me to drive in the carpool lane even if I’m alone). But the drawback is that my gas mileage isn’t all that much better than the 35MPG I used to get in my 1997 Honda Civic. My Prius uses a battery that is recharged by use of the gas engine and isn’t running all that much.

In the last few weeks I’ve been hearing news out of Detroit that American car manufacturers are increasingly looking at cars that run on 100% electricity and plug in overnight. This would save us from lots of the oil we now convert to gas and burn and it would lower our dependence on OPEC. But it raises an obvious question for me: If, over time, we switch from gas powered cars to electric powered cars, where does the electricity come from? And if it’s coal, does switching from one finite fossil fuel to another really help?

I did some looking on the internet and found a page from the Department of Energy. It broke down all the energy consumption in the United States in 2006 and from my calculation, we used 1,990,926 thousand Megawatt hours in coal compated to 4,064,702 thousand Megawatt hours total. If my 3rd grade math is corrrect (Mrs. Moore, are you checking this?) we get about 49% of our electricty from coal. The numbers in California are dramatically different; I found a group called One Block Off the Grid that shows in 2007 California got only 16.6% of its power from coal, but 45.2% from natural gas, another fossil fuel.

I find this a little disturbing for three reasons: First, I’m not sure that in the long run we gain much from switching to another fossil fuel. Granted we have more coal and natural gas under our own soil and this would free us up from OPEC. But the bottom line is that we’re still burning a finite fuel and it, too, will run out some day. Second, coal and natural gas are also greenhouse gases. According to naturalgas.org all three release CO2 with coal being the highest, oil in the middle, and natural gas being the least. You can find the numbers there. Finally, it’s clear that the American car industry needs to change things and change things fast to stay competitive and in business. When they start making the switch to electricity, will the current grid be able to accept all the increase in demand? We here in Southern California know well that there are times during the summer where increased use of air conditioners has led to rolling blackouts because the grid just couldn’t keep up with demand. Granted if we do start switching over to electric cars it will be a gradual thing, and the industry is saying simply “The grid will have to grow” but can it? Can we mine enough coal and natural gas to keep up with demand?

We hear all the time about areas around the world that have electricity for only a few hours a day, if at all. Most of us have never experienced that. We expect, and have come to expect, that whatever we plug in, no matter how power hungry and no matter what time of the day, will work. Those days may be changing.