Electric cars will crash system

the Chevy Volt electric car

Electric cars are a great idea and they’ll save the earth, right? Well, sorry, but it’s going to be a whole lot harder to handle large numbers of electric cars than we hoped.

The whole point of electric cars is that they’re powered by clean, far-away electricity generators instead of petrol engines putting out that dirty carbon dioxide which dangerously heats our planet.

We would prefer to gently erect some pretty windmills or softly lay delicate and lovely solar panels to generate electricity non-intrusively, without antagonism and free of violence to our beloved Mother Earth.

But no matter what we might prefer, if we eliminate all those wonderful, rumbling newtons (known to Jeremy Clarkson as horsepowers) from petrol we must make them up from somewhere else. Ok. Simple question: can we make it up with electricity?

A New Zealand study

A long time ago, in 2008, the CCG published NZ sustainable energy supplies, a paper by local engineer Gary Kendall. Also, incidentally, one of the original members of the CCG.

He examined renewable energy options for New Zealand and the potential load on the national grid of recharging substantial numbers of electric cars. After four years the numbers will need revising as battery capacities and engine specifications will have changed, but what did he find then?

First, Gary made a conservative assumption that private car owners might decide to convert ten per cent of our national fleet to electric vehicles (300,000 cars).

To charge them all at night would require, depending on the choice of vehicle, extra generation capacity equivalent to over 10,000 medium wind turbines, 6.75 Huntly coal stations or 12 Benmore hydros. That’s only while wind speeds stay below half a gale, we’d still need backup thermal generation for when the wind’s too strong or dies down, and there’d still be 90% of our national fleet to convert.

That gives us a working definition of impossible.

United States experience

Now, in Electric Car Owners All Plug In at Once, Scientific American gives the first objective confirmation that Gary was on the right track. If we put too much faith in electric cars, we’ll be brewing a heap of network trouble.

“The utilities are worried that if too many people in a community charge their vehicles at the same time of day, that synchrony would create spikes in power demand that could force the power suppliers to turn on expensive “peak generators” such as gas turbines — costs the utilities would rather avoid, and would ultimately pass on to consumers.”

Experience from a new, “sustainable” community in Austin, Texas, shows that “once 15 to 20 per cent of residents in a neighborhood own electric cars… utilities could have real trouble meeting peak demand.”

If that’s likely in the largest industrial society on the planet, it’s highly likely in ours, too.

What can we do about it? Should we go nuclear and provide all the electricity we could ever want, or wait until battery technology makes some amazing breakthrough, or forget about electric cars and go for hydrogen or fuel cells or something else?

Because one thing’s blindingly obvious: we can’t replace even 10 per cent of our cars with electric versions (quite beside the personal cost) without a substantial investment in electricity generation – which we’re selling off (perhaps we shouldn’t be doing that?).


But it’s all right – the Greens will tell us to plant more windmills.


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29 Thoughts on “Electric cars will crash system

  1. Andy on 25/08/2012 at 7:47 pm said:

    The latest bombshell on wind from the UK (from none other than the UK government itself) is that the spot price of electricity could hit 10,000 pounds per megawatt hour (up from a maximum ever of 938 pounds per MWh)

    This of course is thanks to our old mate wind power


  2. ChrisM on 25/08/2012 at 8:17 pm said:

    It has regularly been $5k MWh here when the DC has tripped and there is a case going through arbitration at present when Huntly wanted to charge about $20k/ MWh because all the other companies, except Contact, wouldn’t buy futures and wanted to chance their arm on the market.

    • Andy on 25/08/2012 at 9:01 pm said:

      Hi chris
      I was wondering if that figure was a bit alarmist.

      It doesn’t help when most of us outside the industry don’t know how the the price mechanism works

    • Richard C (NZ) on 26/08/2012 at 12:43 pm said:

      The NZ Electricity Authority is introducing “scarcity pricing” on 1 June 2013.

      Links here:- https://www.climateconversation.org.nz/open-threads/climate/climate-science/energy-and-fuel/comment-page-2/#comment-111026

      “The scarcity pricing Code amendment gazetted by the Authority provides for the introduction of a $10,000/MWh price floor and $20,000/MWh price cap to the spot market when an electricity supply emergency causes forced power cuts (called emergency load shedding) throughout one or both islands.”

      The euphemism for load shedding during extraordinary peaks when I was working for a distribution power board was that there had been a local “feeder fault”. This was effected by the system controller tripping the circuit breaker on a selected feeder – usually one to which nobody in the control room was connected at their home address.

      “Feeder faults” might be a regular occurrence if electric vehicles become ubiquitous.

  3. ChrisM on 26/08/2012 at 9:00 am said:

    If you do find out how it works, please let me know.

    It has long be suspected that everyone games the system. That is how Enron started making its fortune, manipulating constraints. I know Bryan Leyland was always opposed to the electricity market but he was a voice in the wilderness.

    Though in Huntly’s case I quoted earlier, they had a fair point. It costs a lot of time and money to get coal plant up to a state they can generate. All of that has to be recouped, so if it is only needed for 4 hours, it has to be very expensive power.

  4. Alexander K on 26/08/2012 at 9:41 am said:

    Why is that any form of free lunch recedes from the gullible as they approach it? Simple answer is that the gullible never think any idea through to it’s inevitable conclusion!
    Large numbers of electric cars make as much sense as large numbers of windmills!

  5. Richard C (NZ) on 26/08/2012 at 12:21 pm said:

    The largest concentrations of electric battery vehicles already operating in NZ must be forklifts in packhouses, coolstores and warehouses e.g. Hawkes Bay, Te Puke and Fonterra stores.

    The difference being that they are dual fleets, while one fleet is charging the other is operating so there’s no spike except seasonal. The batteries are large, about 1m square but electric units are relatively small.

    When real grunt is required for truck loadouts, it’s diesel power and double length forks. LPG is used but can’t match diesel for grunt.

    Like wind, electric vehicles have their place but it’s knowing that place. Mass conversion of road going cars to battery electric isn’t it.

    • Interesting; I hadn’t considered the influence of existing electric vehicles. I doubt that the total power consumption of the national forklift fleet would approach that of a tenth of our cars converted to electricity, but it would be interesting to know.

    • Richard C (NZ) on 26/08/2012 at 1:36 pm said:

      The only way we would know would be if plants metered their chargers which I don’t think happens, otherwise it’s just a seasonal surge of total plant including coolstores, whether dairy flush, kiwifruit, apples or whatever. Coolstores being critical are what is monitored but even then only for temperature I think. The only separate metering I can think of is operations and office.

      I think total forklift consumption would be surprising but it’s not year round for each agri sector. In season, forklift fleets run 24/7 and because they do much more work (force x distance) than do cars, their energy use would be greater over that time I think.

      For example, a pallet of 100 modular boxes of kiwifruit weighs one tonne and they get stacked two pallets high requiring a more powerful unit than the smaller feeder units. That means lifting 1t about 2m against the force of gravity. Electric cars just don’t do anywhere near that amount of work.

  6. Coal Powered Cars

    It is time to end all government promotion and subsidies for electric cars which are just the latest green fad, as costly and impractical as most other green fads.

    Electricity is not a primary source of energy – it is a way of transmitting energy from primary sources or storages to electric applications and machines. In Australia, 93% of electricity is generated from carbon fuels, 77% from coal. This will not change dramatically in the near future.

    Therefore most electric cars in Australia will run on coal power. Such vehicles will produce more carbon dioxide per kilometre than the petrol/diesel cars they replace. They do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, even if that mattered. They increase emissions and move them somewhere else.

    All vehicles need a method of storing energy while travelling between resupply stations. For cars and trucks, diesel petrol and gas provide highly concentrated energy in a form that can be conveniently stored in simple fuel tanks.

    Electric cars need heavy batteries which are costly and have low energy storage capacity. They are so limited in range that most are supplied as petrol/electric hybrids – these are heavier, more costly and more complex than our current car fleet. Hybrids run mainly on petrol power, and they need two energy storage tanks – a petrol tank for the combustion motor, and a big battery for the electric motor.

    Electric cars will also need a whole new industry to build and service the cars and supply their power outlets. Add to that the cost of scrapping an enormous industry of assets and skills built up around our current vehicle fleet.

    And who is going to build the massive extra generating capacity needed to charge thousands of electric cars at 6pm every night, just as millions of stoves start to cook dinner?

    The green fantasy is that electric car batteries can be recharged by solar cells on your house roof. Will this work? Yes, after a just few days plugged into the solar panel, the cute green car may be ready for a trip to the local shops.

    Electric cars can have no effect on global climate – they are another example of costly green tokenism. They are rich men’s toys.

    Those who want them, not electricity consumers or tax payers, should pay for them.

    Viv Forbes

    • Mike Jowsey on 26/08/2012 at 10:01 pm said:

      Will this work? Yes, after a just few days plugged into the solar panel, the cute green car may be ready for a trip to the local shops.

      Except in winter. In winter, after a few days, your solar-charged batteries may get your car as far as the letterbox. And then you can push it back to the carport. And plug it in. And wait for the same joyous excitement in another few days.

    • Mike Jowsey on 26/08/2012 at 10:15 pm said:

      And then there are the industrial and political problems to overcome…..

      Since 2009, the Obama administration has awarded more than $1 billion to American companies to make advanced batteries for electric vehicles. Halfway to a six-year goal of producing one million electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, auto makers are barely at 50,000 cars.


  7. Andy on 27/08/2012 at 8:02 am said:

    The BBC article on the London-Edinburgh electric car adventure is entertaining:

    It took 4 days, some serious thermal underwear, and copious amounts of waiting.
    But my electric car and I finally made it to Edinburgh.
    There were plenty of nervous moments, and a rather low-key entry to the Scottish capital.
    After all, I was driving at 30mph and was shivering with cold.
    On the last leg I’d got suddenly over-confident, and had a serious dose of range anxiety.
    6 mph average

    Including the time spent both charging and driving, I managed an average speed between London and Edinburgh of just 6mph


  8. Simon on 27/08/2012 at 10:25 am said:

    I find it curious that a discussion of energy sources is relevant to climate if the basic contention is that there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change.
    The economics of electric cars will vary by country but NZ is one place where hybrid petrol/electric cars might stack up. Pure-play electric cars won’t work for the reasons above. Demand for electricity is declining and there would be a lot of spare capacity if Rio Tinto decide to turn off the aluminium smelter. If you believe Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s column yesterday, who is admittedly very bearish about the world economy, the days of cheap oil are long gone. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/9500667/Peak-cheap-oil-is-an-incontrovertible-fact.html

    • Andy on 27/08/2012 at 10:35 am said:

      I find it curious that a discussion of energy sources is relevant to climate if the basic contention is that there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change

      Who said there was “no such thing as anthropogenic climate change”?

      I accept that humans change the climate, in the same way that I accept that scratching my nose has an effect on the weather. The issue is whether it is a big problem and whether any of the so-called solutions will make any difference, or whether they will have a net negative effect.

      The hybrid cars are a case in point. There are large amounts of nasty rare earths and so on that get used in hybrids. Hybrids have 2 engines and therefore more materials and more to go wrong. A modern VW diesel can have better fuel efficiency than a Prius.

  9. Paul M Smith on 27/08/2012 at 1:52 pm said:

    So the problem remains that we want several things at once:

    Cars that weigh 1000kg + to carry one or two people typically weighing 50 – 140kg each.
    We want the electricity to come from somewhere else.
    We want to have all the convenience/speed/surplus capacity etc. we have now with NO downsides.
    We want it to cost no more than now.
    And we choose to forget that the laws of physics have NOT recently changed.

    Now why does that all seem a bit naive?

    Something has to substantial in the equation about vehicle based transport has to change in order for the outcomes to be different.

  10. Andy,

    I suggest the popularity in China of mopeds is mostly for economic reasons – they’re cheaper. Bring down the cost of cars and people will buy them instead because they’re more comfortable, you’re out of the weather and they keep you safer. They are the things people want. They don’t want “efficiency” for itself and, no matter how high the quality is, they never buy what they cannot afford.

  11. Peter Fraser on 28/08/2012 at 10:59 am said:

    Any electric vehicles I have personal knowledge of all use lead acid batteries. I know of several electric vehicles parked up because of the prohibitive cost of replacement of failed batteries. These batteries need to be replaced three or four times during the useful life of the vehicle, say 12 to 15 years. Recycling lead acid batteries is a toxic and polluting operation. A battery recycling company in Petone could not meet its Resource Consent conditions despite its best efforts and was closed. Huge numbers of lead acid batteries would be needed to service a national electric car fleet, causing lead and sulphuric acid contamination of the environment and probable health damage to the workers and nearby residents. The lead that was introduced into the environment by leaded petrol would be a fraction of that coming from an electric car fleet.

  12. ChrisM on 28/08/2012 at 6:20 pm said:

    Imagine if your vehicle was powered by one of these batteries
    Then there would be a queue to use them and it wouldn’t harm the grid!

  13. Richard C (NZ) on 01/07/2016 at 6:18 pm said:

    ‘Fatal Tesla Model S crash on autopilot sparks US investigation’

    A police report states that the Model S operated by Brown went under the trailer of a truck that turned left in front of the car. The Tesla’s roof was torn off, and the car kept going, leaving the road, striking a fence, crossing a field, passing through another fence and finally hitting a utility pole about 100 metres south of the road, according to the report.


    # # #

    Why didn’t the autopilot see the utility pole?

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