Cost of converting entire U.S. to electric cars? Zero.

How much would it cost to convert the entire U.S. fleet of passenger cars, which collectively burn 40 percent of the oil that we use, to electric cars? Let’s look at some numbers:

  • total oil consumption in the U.S.: 21 million barrels every day (CIA Factbook)
  • cost per barrel: $130
  • days in year: 365
  • total spent per year: $1 trillion
  • percentage of oil consumed by passenger cars: 40 (source)
  • total spent per year on oil for passenger cars: $400 billion [refining into gasoline, distributing, and retailing add even more to this; looking at the 138 billion gallons the U.S. consumed in 2006, at $4 per gallon this is about $552 billion every year (subtract perhaps 5 percent for gasoline used by non-diesel trucks; add 1 percent for oil used by diesel-powered cars)]
  • at 5 percent interest, how much we could we borrow and pay $400 billion every year in interest: $8 trillion [current 10-year T-bill yields enable government to borrow at 3.84 percent]
  • number of registered cars in the U.S.: 250 million (Wikipedia)
  • cost of a new electric car, if mass-produced: $20,000
  • value of a used car, if exported to Latin America or China: $5,000
  • cost to upgrade average existing American car to a brand-new electric car: $15,000
  • number that could be converted for $8 trillion: more than 500 million cars (i.e., twice as many as we have now)
  • percentage of electricity in the U.S. currently being generated from burning oil: about 1 percent (the rest is coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind)

Instead of sending $400 billion each year to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, we could spend it on electric car production in the U.S., Mexico, and China. At current oil prices, it wouldn’t cost us a dime extra to stop importing and burning oil for passenger cars. In fact, if the goal were to end up with the same number of cars on the road, we would have a few trillion dollars left over. One or two trillion dollars would be sufficient to build nuclear, solar, or wind electric power plants to replace all of our plants that currently burn coal and oil (note that less than 1 percent of current electricity generation in the U.S. is from oil (source); most electricity that we use today is from coal, natural gas, or nuclear).

So… simply by stopping our purchases of oil we could finance the construction of power plants that emit no CO2 and electric cars that emit no CO2.

[Many folks quickly commented that I did not figure in the cost of electricity to run the electric cars. I thought that it was common knowledge that electric cars cost very little to run, even at today’s high electricity rates, somewhere between 1 and 4 cents per mile. The gas engine in a car is much less efficient than the generator in a power plant, about 20 percent for the car versus 40-60 percent for fossil fuel plants and 80 percent for hydroelectric. The electric motors in an electric car are often quoted as roughly 90 percent efficient. The U.S. has a near-infinite supply of coal for generating electricity and plenty of existing surplus electric generating capacity in the evening hours (see wikipedia). As noted above, oil is so expensive now that we could use the leftover trillions of dollars to build solar, nuclear, or wind-powered generating plants. offers some numbers for electric car running costs. Periodically replacing the batteries in electric cars costs more than buying the electricity to run them. Of course, nobody has ever seen what would happen to battery costs and reliability if there were a multi-trillion market for batteries.]

[Some other folks noted that it might be tough to borrow between $4 and $8 trillion to finance this conversion. To that I would say that the Three Trillion Dollar War authors claim that the U.S. government has borrowed $2 trillion for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps our creditors would be even happier to lend if it were for something that might pay some dividends.]

[Others have objected that selling our old cars to Latin America or China is not environmentally correct and would not cut down on CO2 emissions. That’s mostly true but remember that this posting was not about cutting CO2 emissions. It was about using the money that we currently spend on oil to pay interest on a loan big enough to replace all of our passenger cars with electric. Why not convert existing cars? A 7000 lb. SUV is not that amenable to electric power. If we leave the 7000 lb. SUV on the road, piloted by a fearless teenager, it becomes a serious hazard to anyone in a 2000 lb. electric car. Exporting the old cars and driving electric cars still saves quite a bit of CO2. Folks in developing countries are going to buy more cars, whether or not we sell them, and they will probably make more efficient use of any cars they have (a 7-seat SUV in the U.S. is occupied by one person; a 7-seat SUV in Peru would be occupied by 10 people). Folks in the U.S. are going to buy newer cars, whether or not they are gas or electric. The entire U.S. fleet of cars will be replaced within 10 years. Currently we are on track to replace our gas guzzling fleet with a newer shinier gas guzzling fleet. I’m not sure that qualifies as progress.]

51 thoughts on “Cost of converting entire U.S. to electric cars? Zero.

  1. Philip, this is one of those very interesting ideas advertised by the slogan on your blog. It would be even more interesting to see a macro-economist’s life cycle cost evaluation which includes factors such retirement of the $8 trillion debt; the operating cost to run the hundreds of millions of electric cars; demand-induced price increases of electricity for other uses; impacts on metals (lead? lithium?) industries from battery production; ancillary changes in military budgets; employment/retraining impacts in auto/oil; impacts to carbon trading market(s); etc. A very important question might be where the electric cars would be produced, domestic U.S. or international. Great idea for a thesis or dissertation?

  2. One must consider the feasibility of foisting 250 million used passenger cars somewhere else in the global market, be it Latin America, China, or anywhere else. Say we sent them somewhere with a booming population where passenger cars were in increasing demand, such as India. We will have effectively outsourced that carbon load to another country, which doesn’t solve the overall problem. What we need instead is a constructive and cost effective way of recycling used vehicles and providing incentives to do so. I haven’t run the numbers, but it seems feasible to convert the cars at $20,000 a pop (removing the optimistic resale value abroad) and still come out ahead.

  3. Going a little further…
    The power needed to charge 250 million electric cars:
    On one day, there is a oil consumption of 8.4 million barrels directly caused by cars.
    Energy density of gasoline: 131 MJ/barrel
    -> cars use 1100 Terajoule of energy per day
    1 kWh equals 3.6 MJ -> 305 GWh per day
    If you want to provide this energy via electric current, we have to put charging efficiency into account – optimistically 60% at this moment.
    Thus, electric charging means around additional 500 GWh per day in the USA.
    This is “only” a 5% increase of current power resources.

    Interesting idea!

  4. While I understand that this is a thought exercise, two pitfalls immediately jump out at me:

    1) This plan is contingent on (and based around) getting an 8 trillion dollar loan, the source of which is unclear; it’s not like you can go down to the bank on the corner and get that much money. You also haven’t explained how to pay back this loan – all you’ve said is that the $400 billion/year will service the interest on it. If everything else worked, we’d have a country full of electric cars and still be paying $400 billion/year in interest, with a significantly larger-than-normal foreign debt.

    2) The plan doesn’t seem to take into account that we can’t magically make these cars appear. It would take several years to build up the factories and infrastructure to mass-produce a $20,000 electric car, and would take just as long to get everyone in the country to trade in their gas cars and get these electric ones. Not to mention the time it would take to build a few new plants to provide all this electricity (it takes about ten years to build a nuclear plant, for reference). So in this transition zone – where we’ve started the plan, but people are still buying oil – we’d be both paying the $400 billion/year for the oil, in addition to the costs to ramp-up electric manufacture.

  5. The biggest problem here are the false assumptions made. One is that all that money goes to others. That’s not true. Well over a third of that money goes to domestic suppliers of oil, not foreigners. And that figure of $130 per barrel assumes current consumption levels. But if all those electric cars suddenly could materialize, that figure would quickly drop and destroy your entire monetary logic.
    Few, if any existing American cars could be converted to electric using current technology and those that could would cost way, way over $15,000 to do
    so. Look at the price of the battery pack in the Chevy Volt – it has a driving range of 40 miles, far too limited for a battery-only EV, yet costs $16,000.
    Converting a car is a massive undertaking and requires changing the entire HVAC system and adding a heat pump, providing vacuum for operating accessories and hydraulic pumps for the power steeering, etc. The electric motor alone costs over $3,000. And the car would not be a valid alternative – it wouldn’t be capable of replacing the current gas powered vehicle. Battery-only electrics are nonsensical- there are no cost-effective and capable batteries available to build them. Your argument assumes there are. That’s a lie.
    No viable electric car could be built for $20,000. In fact you couldn’t build one at any price, since they don’t exist. Your poor logic is due to the fact that you falsely believe that all-electrics must be built in order to eliminate gasoline usage. That is completely false. Using DOT statistics, you can easily demonstrate that a plug-in with an electric driving range greater than 40 miles can eliminate over 97% of gasoline usage for commuting, and have similar effects for the remaining driving regimens. You DON’T NEED to build crappy,
    battery-only electrics to destroy the oil industry. Battery-only electrics cannot
    even remotely meet the needs of private transportation vehicles. And silly scheme like swappable batteries only drives the costs even higher, by requiring many more battery packs than vehicles – it requires 4 to 5 battery packs in reserve to support each traveller rolling down the highway and additionally requires over 30 stops for battery swapping to drive coast to coast. Plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are all that’s needed- ALL of its liquid fuel requirements can easily be met by using ethanol. And non-corn based ethanol is right around the corner and will provide five units of energy for each unit required in production.
    You are simply too hysterical to provide a sound logical and thoughful solution. The good thing is that we don’t need any hastilly conjured up “solutions.”
    Plug-ins will be rolling off the production lines in less than 24 months and they
    will provide electric propulsion in a convenient, economical fashion that won’t require that no one have the ability to leave their neighborhood.

  6. I’m someone eagerly awaiting the chance to put down a deposit on a Chevy Volt, so I’m sympathetic to this argument.

    But it doesn’t entirely persuade.

    Someone living in Massachusetts can probably get alone fine with an electric car. Someone in Texas, where I live, could not. Not if you wanted to go to another town. El Paso and Texarkana are a long way from Austin.

    Nobody is going to pay for $5K for an imported used car. Oh, and Mexico has tightened their rules for importing cars. They must be ten years old. Not 9, not 11. Ten. The value of 1998 pickups has skyrocketed around here as a result.

    The good news is that we in the U.S. can easily and painlessly reduce demand for gas consumption by 40% just by down sizing our cars. My friends with F-250s could get along fine with Ford Rangers. People like me with a Ford Explorer could do fine with a Ford Focus (or do what I did and buy a motorcycle). People now driving economy cars could buy a Prius or Volt.

    Four or five dollar gas makes a lot alternatives economically viable if they aren’t outlawed.

    If Congress can gain some sanity (not a sure a thing with so many Democrats in control I admit) and allow more domestic drilling and refining, oil shale, coal gasification, nuclear power, and sensible bio fuels (as opposed to corn based) then we won’t need to care much about what these tinpot oil dictatorships do.

  7. @goocy

    Good point about the electricity grid. But internal combustion engines only get less than 40% energy efficiency, so only 440 Terajoules of actual work is done by them. So 122 GWh of work is done, and 203 GWh per day must be drawn from the grid. Or home solar panels.

  8. I think only oil futures prices are $130/barrel. Merchants increase their current gas prices in order to buy gas a higher price in the future. Its all based on speculation. In any case though, we really need to get off of hydrocarbons. What kind of intelligent lifeforms burn dead animals to get around?

  9. If your cars are going to be exported to Latin America and/or China where is the CO2 dividend? Won’t the cars pollute just as much when driven by the Chinese and Latin Americans?

  10. @ the other Dan

    I just did a quick cost analysis for my car. Assuming 250,000 km over life, 10L/100km, and $3.00/L average cost (pretty low), I’ll spend $75,000 in gasoline costs. If I converted my car to electricity, and based on a $0.30/kWh cost (twice current, and currently using 100% renewable), I should spend about $45,000 in electricity costs. So I have $30,000 left over to do the conversion and perhaps an extra battery pack, and pay for interest on any loans I take out. It sounds like a winning proposal right now.

  11. Where do you suppose you’ll get all the Lithium to power these electric cars? There isn’t enough lithium in the earth to make this plan feasible. Lead acid batteries are marginal at best, and NiCd batteries cycle themselves to death very quickly, especially in a car.

    Now if you’re basing this on some type of battery that isn’t in the mainstream, you’ll have to up the price and timeframe quite a bit.


    GM made an electric car, it “failed” because they realized they would loose money because they also make the filters and bits that we have to replace every so often. Electric cars have no moving motor parts.

    There are also other companies out there already doing this. We just have to start buying their cars! 🙂

  13. This is both an interesting idea and a complicated one. A couple more things to take into account through the process:

    1) The raw materials required to make longer range (and hence larger) vehicle batteries tend to be expensive (nickel and cadmium are good examples despite being on the cheaper side). Although the cost might be relatively low in early production, there is a real possibility that electric vehicles might become more expensive to produce as these materials come into higher demand.

    2) The disposal costs of vehicle batteries are significant as most current batteries are highly toxic and must be discarded carefully.

    3) Although battery technology is improving, battery capacity still degenerates over time, necessitating replacements. This issue could theoretically exacerbate the above mentioned challenges.

    Interesting idea though. Perhaps we could do short term conversions to biofuels and hybrid systems while we ramp up the infrastructure for electric? Not an elegant solution but it would give us some breathing room and lessen oil dependence during the infrastructure build.

  14. This isn’t a “plan”, it’s a back-of-envelope ballpark analysis, and as such is fairly compelling.

    Don’t get bogged down in practical considerations such as dumping 250M cars all at once on other countries would be bad — even if the cars were crushed you can still afford enough cars.

    Some more realistic issues:

    1) A lot of the money we spend on the Middle East goes to Israel which will still have lobbying power (and, hence, receive money) even if we didn’t need oil.

    2) The extra 5% of power generation capacity needed will be distributed inconveniently and we’ve ignored the costs of providing it.

  15. One factor often unmentioned in the electric vehicle debates is when do you charge them. If the standard was to auto-charge your batteries during off peak hours (while most of America sleeps) there would be less need to expand electric generation facilities. The current infrastructure would probably become more efficient because the demand fluctuations would greatly be reduced. As business and household demand began to be reduced in the evenings, your online charger would begin charging. During the time of least business/home demand all capacity that is normally idled down could be kept running a peak efficiency to recharge the American transportation system. Also, the American economy could grow with domestic production of solar recharging panels that could be used to offset some of the grid demand for electricity for autos and could lead to further innovations in home lighting, heating, cooling etc. What’s not to love?

  16. The real problem with this is the electrical grid infrastructure. Here in california we are so close to max capacity we still get rolling black outs most summers because people run their AC.

    Imagine what would happen if everyone started plugging in electric cars all at once. The whole power grid would go down. They would need at least a decade to build a new power grid, that could support an all electric car country.

  17. One obvious flaw — U.S. doesn’t send 400 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. A very large percentage of what is used is domestically produced and a very large percentage of what is imported is imported from Mexico and Canada.

  18. Brian: The market for oil is worldwide. We export oil from Alaska to Japan and then import some from Venezuela to feed refineries in the eastern U.S. Any oil that we buy from Canada or Mexico is oil that cannot be sold on the world market and that ultimately will result in reduced supply and therefore higher prices. Even buying and burning a barrel of oil from Texas is just about as beneficial to the owners of Saudi Arabia as buying and burning a barrel from over there.

    Dave: When looking at the fire-breathing behemoths that we drive to the 7-11 it would seem that every American would need his own personal Hoover Dam to power the commute to work. However, as Goocy graciously calculated above (in a comment), the amount of extra electricity needed is minimal compared to what we’re already consuming. Furthermore, charging would tend to occur at off-peak hours. Your car could be programmed to talk to the grid, find out that demand was lowest at 3:00 am, and charge itself in the cool morning hours when A/C demand was lowest.

    Everyone else: It is true that converting the U.S. to electric passenger cars would be an ambitious and expensive project. It probably wouldn’t make economic sense with oil at $20 per barrel. My point was that with oil at $130 per barrel we are spending $400 billion per year, before refining and distribution costs, to run our cars. For $400 billion per year you can solve a lot of knotty engineering and infrastructure problems.

  19. Ryan’s comment “NiCd batteries cycle themselves to death very quickly, especially in a car” is inaccurate. Our freeway-capable EV has NiCds that are about 10 years
    old and it’s still running. In fact flooded NiCds are still one of the best batteries for
    cycle life in the EV application, that’s why SAFT of France (the manufacturer)
    supplied modules for one of the largest EV fleets in existence. Yes, Cadmium is
    a toxic heavy metal but the modules are sent back to the manufacturer to be recycled at end of life, just like the toxic heavy metal (PbA) batteries in most
    ICE vehicles.

  20. The challenges to the basic idea merit consideration, but does anyone actually think going electric isn’t the better option? Seems to me readers should read the comments with an appreciation for which order of magnitude the concern addresses. I doubt any of the concerns top $8T, and I’d be surprised if many even rose to $800B, the 10% threshold where we really start worrying about the effect of a perturbation.

  21. If you see the overall problem as the carbon footprint, your missing a big part.

    The West is financing all sorts of terrorism coming out of the Middle East. That is, we’re financing BOTH sides of the thing people are calling the “Clash of Civilizations”.

    If neither the Mullahs of Iran nor Saddam Hussein had oil money, they wouldn’t have been able to build war machines or finance terrorism.

    Just today the IAEA came out with a new report against Iran and there’s no doubt Saddam Hussein would have gone down the nuclear road as soon as he was able.

    There are plenty of radical countries that would like to wage jihad against the West but simply don’t have the funds. If only Iran didn’t have the funds.

    Also, of course, the whole argument, as presented, assumes efficient and correct central planning of the economy. It would cost more to convert to a command economy than to convert to electric cars.

    But the free market way, nudged by the government, to be sure, can be more efficient in the long run and will not require 8 trillion dollar lump-sum loans.

    There are numerous gotchas along the path. But adaptability of the free enterprise system can overcome that.

    A carbon tax might help. Actually, using a few billion to sieze, that is, liberate, the oil fields would also be efficient (financially). For the US, that is, not for Iran.

  22. Not really a bad idea, except that batteries today don’t really hold enough power. Driving 30 miles to work when the battery is new and fully charged might let me drive home in the evening without a recharge, but over time and use I might be stuck at work looking for a recharge. Even my cell phone battery never seems to last as long on a charge as it did when it was new.

    Need to take into account adding in chargers to parking lots, as well as the power during the day while the cars are being recharged. Power failure during a recharge would mean stranded employees. Needing to leave before the charging is ready could also be bad.

    Not to mention people that drive for a living such as cab drivers or delivery men, or people that drive a lot in the course of their day such as repair people.

    I’m guessing you either don’t drive much or far. Driving a pure electric vehicle may become feasible for everyone when and if we ever have battery tech that will both hold a large charge and can be fully charged relatively fast.

  23. I live in an area that is 98 miles from the nearest shopping center. Most electric conversions I hear of has a range of 100km 60 km short of getting me there let alone getting me home. I don’t see how an electric car would be feasible in rural America with the limited range of most conversions.

    I will admit that hybrids in rural America make a lot more sense but a 1989 Geo metro gets better gas mileage than most current day hybrids.

  24. Would not the money-making /controlling powers-that-be prevent this from occurring? Just as the tire companies and oil companies ripped up the trolley tracks in the last century?

  25. I understand the point you’re making and it makes for a good read. But paying off only the interest leaves us $8 trillion in debt forever. How about paying off some of the principal too?

  26. Ah, kerry bradshaw, yet another armchair expert who just “knows” what it takes for an EV to be practical. I wish they’d just step aside and let those of us who have actually driven them to talk about our experiences.

    I drove the GM EV1 for 5 years. i loved it. It met all my routine daily needs. When I needed to go out of town, I drove it to the airport — they even had public chargers. When we went desert camping, we rented an SUV for a couple of days; no need to drive one solo to work the other 363 days a year just in case!

    Everybody else I knew with an EV1 loved them too. We were all more than willing to continue paying the leases. Maintenance cost GM virtually nothing. But five years ago GM refused to renew our leases. They called them all back and crushed them.

    Can anybody explain why?

  27. @Jim:

    Battery tech for cars has improved. Look into the tesla roadster. They’re claiming a 250 mile range.

    (Their car is expensive, but they think they could do about a $20K car in volume.)

  28. Some of these comments illustrate that some people are
    very ignorant of the promise of electric vehicles. Even the larger motors, for instance, don’t cost $3,000 – for the smaller vehicles that are being proposed here, the cost of a motor is more like $1600, a little over half. Most smaller vehicles can easily be converted for $15,000 or less. Yes, some people can’t live where they live now, and make it to work and back – So move closer to work!!!

    I have converted a vehicle myself, so am speaking from experience here, guys – this would be a GREAT idea, and would work, IF we wanted it to!

  29. *** I think only oil futures prices are $130/barrel. Merchants increase their current gas prices in order to buy gas a higher price in the future. Its all based on speculation. ***

    Hmm, no. The “future” in this case would be July of this year at $128.85. If current prices were significantly less someone could simply store up a bunch of oil for a month and make a killing.

    “Speculation” is just a loaded term for someone (other than a producer or consumer) holding a position in some commodity. Another term for it would be a modern commodity market.

  30. philg – I think that you’ve done a great job showing that the overall numbers make sense (i.e. if the only real objection from an end-user perspective is range, switch “electric cars” to “plug-in hybrids”). As dan (#10) mentions, once you start calculating lifetime costs, it makes sense from an end-user perspective too (that’s before figuring in say, oil changes and the like even).

    It seems to me, and I’m sort of surprised that others haven’t mentioned it, is that the real reason this is a thought experiment is because the the government and the drivers aren’t the sole (or even the primary) actors, but rather the oil and related industries. The combined market cap of the oil & gas industry is just shy of $1.9 Trillion – it’s larger than #2 (drug manufacturers) and #3 (central banking) combined. Exxon Mobile (XOM) alone, is $480B – larger than the combined market cap of all auto manufacturers ($381B). XOM currently has an EBITDA of $76.5B. It continues to post record profits as oil prices have gone up (currently 35.4% quarterly revenue and 17.3% quarterly profit growth). The profits they stand to reap over the next several decades (which is the timeframe – remember XOM started as Standard Oil back in 1870) is in the trillions.

    Now what might be a most interesting continuation of this thought experiment is that, in light of this sort of economic landscape and these economic motivations, what would a transition plan to a saner automotive and energy system look like? How would you make the dominoes fall and what would be involved? Hmm…

    * Market cap #s from Yahoo! Finance

  31. Interesting discussion! The amazing thing about electric cars and hybrids in the city is that when stopped at a traffic light (which can be most of the time), THEY CONSUME NO ENERGY!!! One of the central insanities of our culture is any busy intersection where 200 cars sit idling burning fuel, then the light turns green and everyone steps on it for 100 yards, then hits the brakes, and sits for another 5 minutes burning fuel. Insane!

    The thinking that got us into this situation will not get us out of it.
    I forget who said something like that.

  32. Currently there are electric and internal combustion vehicles operating side by side.
    There will be for the foreseeable future. Lets just tweak the electric percentage up quickly, hey?
    Years ago the San Francisco bay bridge had a free lane for more than one passenger. So all these other jammed tool booth lines had mostly single passenger commuters. Electric vehicles make sense in short haul situations.
    One key for me in conversion of our fleet is how much Domestic employment is generated by money spent. I know oil companies have fewer employed than car companies for the same money throughput. It would be nice to see an analysis along these lines. Also I’ve seen story after story about folks who converted used cars to electric for $10,000 or less. I guess labor was excluded as they did it themselves but still a garage mechanic could do it Today for under that 20 grand thought experiment price point. BTW I rode in a zippy $19,000 minivan the other day at my local college’s sustainable energy fair that’s available in Seattle from

  33. That’s an awful lot of DC wiring and large electric motors. I wonder what it’d do to the price of copper. Would Bolivia become the next Iran?

  34. Phil, your figures are off or misquoted. Electric cars are more like 1-2 cents per mile, not .02 cents per mile. Perhaps you meant to write 0.02 dollars per mile?

    Anyway, the U.S. standard for energy use is btus/passenger mile. The average car is about 3500. (The average city diesel bus is about 3400, and many light rail systems are also more than cars. Boston’s T system is about 4300 btus/passenger mile, a fair bit worse than private cars. San Jose’s is 7,000, among the worst. NYC trains are 3,100)

    The Tesla is about 700 btus/pm, The Tango about 500. Larger cars more like 1,000. On the other hand electric scooters and bikes are around 100 btus/pm.

    Anyway, with electric passenger cars like people want today, it’s a saving of about 3 to 1 on energy, which is very good, but not as good as you write.

  35. Actually, as someone with an engineering background, you might be interested in converting the units. 1 gallon of gasoline containes ~125,000 BTU, which converts to about 37 kWh. Here in the Bay Area, we are paying about $0.13/kWh, so the equivalent energy comes to… $4.81. Gasbuddy reports that a gallon of regular in SF is bouncing between $4-$4.20, so per energy unit, gas is cheaper (maybe it’s the 7.2% average transmission loss).

    Now in terms of efficiency, if an gasoline-powered car is burning 37kWh / 25-30mi, and say, compare it to an EV1 Gen 2 (Ovonic NiMHs) that had 26.4kWh oh battery capacity for a 75-150mi range, well, you can do the math there.

    (If you want to go through your numbers more specifically, the big difference is that for an EV, the transmission loss is closer to 7% than 10% [7.2% according the gov’t report I read], charging efficiency is closer to 90%, and power to wheel is also closer to 90%. The main issue is that more than the actual Carnot numbers (about 25% at peak), ICEs are massively inefficient both because of variable RPM (hybrids work primarily based on stabilizing the Otto cycle, this would also be why a stirling-based PHEV would be a good idea) and of course, drivetrain loss. You can get the exact “efficiency” for your car by converting the kWh to acceleration for the mass of you and your car. Note, that this is before calculating the “transmission” cost of getting gas from the refinery to the tank and the refinement costs [the number I’ve seen tossed around is 8% energy cost for refinement]. The power numbers really speak for themselves, so we can also reiterate that beyond the 2-5x efficiency gain, the hard-to-enumerate externalities involved in how we acquire these energy sources is what kicked off philg’s original post. Most of the electrical power generation comes from domestic coal and natural gas (also, in CA 15% comes from hydro and another 10% comes from other renewables) while most of the gas we’re burning is refined from foreign oil, of which there are large military and political costs attached. Try running efficiency numbers on the death toll of 3K American citizens, 4K American soliders (30K), and 600K-1.2M Iraqi civilians.)

    No matter which way you slice it, not switching really is criminal … well, it would be if it wasn’t so profitable.

  36. Since some people posted in between when I started my long missive, that last response was to @PaulS (#32).

    Also, @jgrub (#33), I like the line of thinking about employment/cost. I think that any viable alternative energy plan will really need to focus around generating new industry… Anyone that can figure out how to lift up the manufacturing sector and improving the lot of blue-collar America will go a long way towards really making a change.

    Also, anyone paying attention knows that there’s a real plug-in scene that’s been developing, but A123 is starting to sell commercial conversion for $10K for Prius’s now. (Look up HyMotion L5).

  37. Brad: I think that you missed my point. You talk about electric cars being only a 3:1 energy saving. 99% of the energy that runs gas-powered cars comes from oil. 99% of the energy that runs electric-powered cars comes from sources other than oil. Converting to electric cars is a way to cut our usage of oil, not our usage of energy (though it would have that effect as well, at least to some extent).

  38. It’s an unfortunate side effect that people driving electrics/hybrids, carpooling and keeping tires properly inflated are in effect lowering the price of gasoline for SUV drivers.

    As the number of miles driven in efficient vehicles goes up (all else equal) demand for gasoline goes down and gasoline-powered vehicles look (relatively) better and better… unless government and voters decide to factor in the full cost of oil import and consumption into gasoline taxes.

  39. Phillip, why do you think that the energy that runs electric cars comes from other than… well you say oil, and it’s true, most electricity is not from oil, but most of it is from fossil fuel — coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, a bit of oil and a bit of renewables.

    Unfortunately if we went to all electric cars the grid can’t handle it, and we would have to produce a lot more power — today that would mean burning fossil fuels. What would we burn? Mine more coal? Probably imported gas, coal and oil while trying to bring nukes and more renewable online.

    Not that I’m not all for the electric car proposal. I’ve been giving talks on why robot cars can make that happen, because you no longer care about range, only if the vehicle that comes to you can take you where you want to go.

    However, even with that, 45% of our miles are highway, and demand longer range vehicles (and trucks) and we’re not able to deliver that with electric cars today, though in time we might. However, those vehicles might b urn other fuels, especially if they are robotic and can refuel themselves without humans waiting.

  40. @Rob

    That’s actually one thing we probably don’t have to worry about. Practically every model (except the IEA, which is currently being revised downward, and that many view as pretty wildly optimistic anyway) shows oil production as either plateauing or peaking (it’s been hovering at about 81Mbpd for the past couple years, although I’ve heard 85Mbpd as a number being tossed around for current production recently) .

    While production hasn’t been increasing, demand, especially from China (and to a lesser degree India and Russia) has been rising – 7%YoY. The EIA (the US Energy Information Agency, not to be confused with the aforementioned International Energy Agency) has stats showing increasing annual growth, with projected demand increasing 37% over 2006 levels by 2030. China’s consumption is doubling every 10 years, and India’s consumption is expected to triple from 2005 levels by 2020.

    All that’s a very long way of saying that even if a lot of people switch over, it probably wouldn’t be enough to lower current gas prices because of the huge demand growth in the BRICs. If Goldman Sachs and Jeff Rubins are right, we’ll be saying hello to $7-10/gallon gas soon enough.

  41. Brad: As I noted in the original posting, with the trillions of dollars that we wouldn’t be spending on oil, we would have a lot of options for how to get the energy needed to run passenger cars. The first option is to do almost nothing, if the calculation that we need only 5 percent more electricity than we are currently generating. “Almost nothing” probably includes mining a bit more coal out of our current supply (the lowest estimates that I’ve heard on the extent of our coal supply are that we have 500 to 1000 years worth left in the ground right here in the USA. How could it be better for the Earth to give money to a West Virginia coal miner than a Saudi Arabian? It probably isn’t. Could it be better for us? No West Virginia coal miner has ever been discovered using the money that we sent him to wage war against Americans.

    If we don’t want to continue burning coal, the money saved from not buying oil could be used to build solar, wind, or nuclear powerplants.

    As for your range argument, McDonald’s would be bankrupt if people frequently drove their cars even 100 miles without stopping. Quite a few battery technologies can take a significant charge in 15 minutes. Maybe the solution is to put recharging plugs in the parking spaces of fast food restaurants.

    Gas-powered cars are not perfect. They pollute our cities. They are noisy. They require a lot of mechanical tinkering as they get older. They burn gas and pollute the air even when stopped in a traffic jam (and an ever larger percentage of our time will be spent in traffic jams because we can’t seem to get organized with congestion pricing).

    Neither will an electric car be perfect and one of its disadvantages may be that you have to sit down at Burger King for 15 minutes instead of using the drive-thru.

  42. Electricity can also replace petroleum through electrification of railroads. In the early 1970s, I worked at the GE company’s locomotive factory in Erie. They had an effort to promote electrification of railroads. Most of the sales at that time were for passenger trains in Amtrak’s northeast corridor, but the sales goal was to electrify much more. As I recall, it was economic then, depending on your assumptions about future fuel cost and cost of capital. The railroads didn’t want to front the huge capital for the wires and transformers, and little has happened.

    Railroads can be electrified without needing about batteries, and the job can be done incrementally. If the tracks over the Rockies are electrified, the trains going downhill can use regenerative braking and feed back power to help the ones going up. The diesel locomotives that you see every day have electrical dynamic braking, but the power is dumped to resistor banks on top, cooled by the same airflow as the engine radiator. To return that power to an overhead wire, you need fancy electronics to make power at the right voltage and frequency, but that technology was being invented in the 1970s and is used in subways and elsewhere.

    Trolley buses and trolley cars are other charming technologies. I don’t challenge the merit of electric and hybrid cars, but only offer some additional opportunities for electrifying things. The boundless possibilities may be limited mainly by the supply of copper.

  43. Very interesting idea. The real value in this post is not trying to convert this into an exact policy, but using this to help us understand that this could be possible. Obviously a $8T loan is not an easy thing to produce, nor is totally undermining the embedded oil interests of this country (where do you think the $3T loan is motivated by). This instead is a proof of what is possible–a preemptive counter-argument for all the counter-arguments–to act as a guide as we push for real policy to aid the phase in of an electric fleet and a phasing out of oil.

    At first it will be cities like San Fransisco and states like California that pay attention to these numbers, but gradually these facts will become more and more clear to the masses, enough to overcome special interests and inertia.

  44. Joe: Thank you for grasping my point, which is that we are currently spending so much on oil that almost any formerly too-wild-to-consider-scheme is now feasible. I think I’m going to do another post soon on how oil is so expensive that GDP growth has become uncorrelated with a rising standard of living (because most of the rise in GDP will simply go to pay for more oil).

  45. A recent IEEE Spectrum article pointed out, amongst other things, that the way Americans typically measure fuel efficiency (miles per gallon) skews our opinions of various technologies, such as plug-in hybrids or electric cars. The correct way, as the article argues, is to think in terms of fuel consumer per unit of distance traveled. For example, given a 100-mile round trip daily commute:

    A 10mpg SUV will consume 10 gallons of fuel.
    A 20mpg hybrid SUV will consume 5 gallons of fuel.
    A 50mpg Prius will consume 2 gallons of fuel.
    A 100mpg plug-in Prius will consume 1 gallon of fuel.
    A pure electric vehicle will consume zero gallons of fuel.

    I would claim there is no existing technology that would make possible an electric vehicle with capabilities equivalent to a 10mpg SUV and 100 mile range. There does exist gas-electric hybrid technology that makes a 20-mpg SUV possible. The greatest reduction in petroleum consumption by personal transportation will occur by focusing on the worst offenders first, but it seems like all the focus is on the other end of the scale.

    The other issue is the distribution of types of vehicles with average driving distances and habits, would seem to make the situation even worse. I’m certainly interested in a pure electric vehicle, but I drive a 30mpg car and have a daily commute of about ten miles, so my energy footprint is pretty low already compared to many in my current hometown of Houston, TX. Your average SUV-driving, 100-mile-a-day commuting suburbanite doesn’t seem to care about energy footprint and I think nothing short of the complete unavailability of gasoline at any price will make them limit their lifestyle in the name of reduced energy use.

    Bottom line – increasing the fuel efficiency of gas-guzzlers will be more effective in the near term at reducing national oil consumption than developing PHEVs or EVs.

  46. Alex: “capabilities equivalent to a 10mpg SUV and 100 mile range”? If you include “hauling 7000 lbs. behind you as you drive to work by yourself”, I think we do have to count electrics out. Supposedly, however, the GM EV1, introduced in 1990, had a 160-mile range (see ). If you had a 50-mile commute to work you would need only a 50-mile range in any case. With the $400 billion that we spend per year on oil for cars we could buy a few extension cords to run out to employee parking lots.

    According to average American commute was 16 miles in 2005. As the population continues to expand here in the U.S. and congestion pricing is rejected, one can only assume that many of these 16 miles will be spent stuck in traffic. The SUV’s capabilities, which cannot be matched by the electric car, include burning gas and putting out a lot of pollution at idle while sitting in a traffic jam.

  47. I really love when people do these types of thought experiments. I would very much like to see at least one economist and or scientist consider this type of calculation in gory detail to see if the estimations by bloggers are truly ‘in the ballpark’ and hit upon upkeep calculations as well (this was done to a small extent in the Stern report in 2006, but also took into account oil going from $50/barrel to 30, not 130).

    So far all that I’ve seen indicates that even a percent or so of GDP were shifted into actual production and implementation US energy production via solar/wind/geothermal/etc… is not only feasible but not anymore expensive (although there is certainly a window of time where we would have to spend building the initial infrastructure which is still problematic). Now if we could only tackle the “inconvenience” argument it would be a slam dunk.

    One last point: Even though it is still in it’s infancy stage and has yet to suffer through the “technology death valley” I find it interesting to read about solar paints which it is estimated to produce electricity at ~$1/watt which would bring part of the calculation down by a factor of 10 (5 if the estimation is off by 100%!)

  48. kerry bradshaw wrote:

    “No viable electric car could be built for $20,000. In fact you couldn’t build one at any price, since they don’t exist. ”

    Uh, excuse me?

    Range: 250 MILES
    Time to charge: 3.5 Hours
    Max Speed: 125 MPH
    Acceleration: 0-60 in 3.9 seconds

    Where have you been lately Kerry????

    This car is currently in production. Price is $100,000. The company is American but the first model of Tesla Roadster is being built in England.

    Tesla intends to build a 5 passenger electric car next, with a 200 mile range, and they will build it in the USA. The price will be $50,000.

  49. Phillip- Only one mistake in your assesment. If all cars were electric, the costs would continue to come down way below $20000. Thats the little secret that the car companies dont want to let out. Remember the DVD player? When cars are all electric, no engine (no engine parts to cast out of steel etc) the car becomes not a car, but a piece of consumer electronics. Eventually, cars will be made in a factory just like a DVD player. Body, battery pack, and electric motor
    snapped together like a lego.

    Let me tell you, these guys are terrified that the day will come that you can go to Best Buy and get a two seater for $ 6000, and let me tell you, that day is coming ….


  50. Well said Bill. I’ve never understood why electric cars are so expensive.
    An electric motor should cost much less to build than the equivalent I.C.E.. It will also take up much less space than an internal combusion engine – probably a quarter of the space. It won’t have anywhere near as many parts as an I.C.E., and the parts that make up an I.C.E. all have to be precision engineered down to thousandths of an inch, and require constant lubrication. The I.C.E. also requires tuning, and over time piston rings will wear, spark plugs will wear, oil will need changing, water will need changing, the coolant system will need maintaining, etc.etc. Just look at your yearly garage bill for repairs on a conventional car that’s over 5 years old.
    An electric car should have the motors in the hubs of the wheels, and use regenerative braking only – no brake pads. You then have four electric motors in the wheels, taking up no extra space whatsoever, compared to a gas car. The car’s engine space can then be used for batteries, and if necessary, a highly efficient 150cc diesel engine can be kept in order to charge up the batteries for longer journeys – the diesel engine would of course run at ONE speed, the optimum speed, unlike the engine of a normal car.

    So we have an electric car that no longer requires expensive servicing every year, (I’m guessing here, but I would expect that the average car probably cost $250 a year to service – that’s only going from my experience though), that has no engine parts which wear out, unlike an internal combustion engine, and will require new batteries once every five years, or something like that. (Again, I am guessing here.)
    So how can it possibly cost so much MORE to build what is obviously a much SIMPLER car? A bunch of batteries, an electric ‘box’ to control it (I don’t know what is involved, but I doubt it costs much to make), a hub electric motor built into each wheel, no brakes to wear out, no expensive engine parts to wear out, etc. So what’s the total cost?

    We see a similar phenomonen with electric bicycles – I found a website in the UK selling electric bicycles from £1300 to £1600! Now, a bicycle frame can only hold a light battery, so the battery can’t have cost more than £50. The motor can’t have cost more than £50 (that’s being very generous, probably £15), and the electronics can’t have cost more than £20. So why are they £1500?

    Then we have the ludicrous UK laws which say that an electric bike motor can only be up to 250w, and I think the top speed is 15mph. Now, the top speed is just fine, I rarely go that fast on the flat, but why not allow us to have a 500w motor, and just limit the top speed to 15mph? A 250w motor isn’t going to pull me up a hill faster than walking speed, and if I’m on the flat but facing a 20mph headwind, I’m not going to be able to go 15mph. It seems that the government is so stupid and out of touch with reality (i.e. they’ve never ridden a bike in their lives!) that they think that it’s okay for a 20 stone man to ride a bike at 30mph down a steep hill (which is, of course, perfectly legal), but it isn’t okay for a 10 stone 70 year old woman to ride an electric bike at 15mph up a hill! In other words, the technology is being crippled and the very people who would otherwise buy such a bike will not buy it, because it won’t get them where they want to go, quickly enough, so instead they stick to using a car.

    And in typical fashion, these laws were made without any democratic vote – i.e. if the majority of the population were shown an electric bike with a 500w motor, and a limited top speed (from the motor) of 15mph, I’m sure they’d have no objections to it.

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