A winning formula for sustainable mobility

TheGlobeandMail.com – commentary – A winning formula for sustainable mobility
June 29, 2008. JATIN NATHWANI

Perhaps 30 years hence, we may reflect upon today’s high oil prices as a blessing in disguise that paved the way for a reshaping of Ontario’s auto sector enabled by the electric grid. The pain at the pumps for all, the anger of the auto workers at the prospect of losing their livelihoods and the relentless pressures of the global energy markets ought to focus our minds and sharpen the search for credible solutions.

We need to get beyond the overheated rhetoric and the finger-pointing to develop alternate pathways for environmentally sustainable mobility at reasonable cost.

A strategic convergence of the power and the transport sectors is a key part of the answer, achievable in the near to mid term (five to seven years). The primary limitations are a lack of clear policy focus on innovation and our collective inability to marshal resources and align strategic developments across sector interests, agencies and different levels of government. There exists an enormous potential to displace gasoline and to reduce cost to consumers by use of electricity through plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

A conventional hybrid derives all its energy for the drive train from gasoline. The plug-in hybrid is fundamentally different. It derives most of its energy from the electricity grid and supplements any additional needs with a gasoline engine in a seamless fashion. It combines the best of both worlds – the advantages of an electric vehicle charged during “off-peak” times on the power grid and gasoline only when needed for unlimited driving range.

Given that more than half of cars are driven less than 50 kilometres a day, this flexibility offers peace of mind to the consumer and a promising path for meeting the demanding standards of reliable low-cost transportation. From a strategic perspective, electrification of the transportation sector can deliver substantial environmental benefits (low greenhouse gas emissions), lower cost to consumers and increased revenues to utilities. Reducing the dependence on oil-based transportation has the added benefit of moderating the pressures on security of long-term supply in a global marketplace driven by explosive demand from emerging economies.

The electricity infrastructure is designed to meet the highest expected “peak” demand for power. The system operates at near capacity for a few hundred hours (about 5 per cent of the time) a year. For the remainder of the time, the power system is capable of generating and delivering a substantial amount of energy needed to fuel the car batteries at “off-peak” hours.

For example, Ontario’s requirements vary from day to day with a peak demand of about 26,000 MW, dropping to about half of that at night. Fuelling cars on the grid from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. provides a lucrative opportunity to charge several million vehicles. This would also provide valuable storage capacity on the grid to help improve the overall utilization of the system and to accommodate increased penetration of intermittent renewable generation resources, such as wind power.

Southern California Edison estimates that four million vehicles could be charged without exceeding peak load. Studies show 84 per cent of cars, pickup trucks and SUVs in the United States could be supported by the existing infrastructure with a gasoline displacement potential of greater than 50 per cent of the country’s oil imports. A detailed nationwide analysis of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that takes into account emissions from the electricity sector and the plug-in hybrid vehicles, confirms significant environmental benefits – cumulative greenhouse gas reductions that range from 3.4 to 10.3 billion metric tonnes over the 2010-2050 time frame.

So what’s in it for the consumer? A visit to the gas station perhaps once a month rather than once a week. (And the costs would be lower still if the “smart grid” can deliver price differentiated “off-peak” energy at a lower cost.) An electrically charged vehicle is cheaper to fuel by a factor of four over an equivalent conventional vehicle. It runs on about a dollar per gallon compared to four dollars per gallon at current prices. Higher initial costs, however, may be a barrier to consumers.

It’s important, however, not to confine our thinking only to the auto sector. By increasing overall electricity consumption without a major requirement for upgrades to the existing electricity infrastructure, fixed costs could be spread over a larger base with benefits to consumers. The low carbon intensity of Canada’s power sector can make it a powerful tool for de-carbonizing the economy and the transport sector in particular. Any significant use of plug-ins would help moderate the pressures on global oil demand and increase security of supply.

The low carbon intensity of Canada’s power sector is a huge advantage that has not been recognized or leveraged to good effect. What we need is to develop an in-depth consideration of policy options and strategic alternatives for rapid implementation.

A century ago, Lord Selborne, the first lord of the Admiralty, dismissed the idea of fuelling the British navy with something other than coal. “The substitution of coal for oil is impossible,” he pronounced, “because oil does not exist in this world in sufficient quantities.” Winston Churchill, seven years later, saw that oil would increase speed and reduce fuelling time – strategic advantages – and committed the navy to the new fuel. Are electrons about to do the same to oil a century later?

Jatin Nathwani is a p rofessor at University of Waterloo and Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy Management

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