Run Cars on Green Electricity, Not Natural Gas


Pickens Meets Obama
Image credit:Cleveland, Real-Time News from Around the Nation
By: Jonathan G. Dorn, Staff Researcher at the Earth Policy Institute, where he works on energy issues.

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.As I write in "Run Cars on Green Electricity, Not Natural Gas", 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.

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. 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. (See additional data.)

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.

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.

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¢.

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.

For more from Jonathan G. Dorn, go to the Earth Policy Institute website.

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