The world is on the cusp of an energy revolution.
A growing number of those in the market for a new car are considering electric vehicles, and are amazed by the performance and economics when they take that plunge — at least in our region.
An electric vehicle is incredibly efficient under the right conditions. Given the cost of electricity in the City of Plattsburgh, an electric vehicle can travel the 36 miles at a fraction of the cost the average modern car can go on a gallon of gas. That’s approximately $0.40 of electricity compared with $2.70 of gasoline.
Electric cars remain more expensive, but are much cheaper to maintain, with far fewer moving parts. As costs come down, the value proposition that already exists for communities like the City or Rouses Point will extend to other municipalities as well.
However, while going electric sometimes makes financial sense for those with inexpensive electricity, it doesn’t always make environmental sense. Let me explain.
A CURIOUS CASE
The City of Plattsburgh is one of only a handful of cities in the country that supply electricity from 100% renewable sources.
On the rare occasion that the city exceeds its power quota, it purchases extra electricity through renewable energy credits, currently from Clinton County windfarms.
Of course, given an electricity rate a third or a quarter of our region’s average, Plattsburgh is unusual among electric energy sustainable communities in that most all of its heating is also electric.
If city residents opted for electric vehicles, or if the city has enough greenery to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by its vehicles, the City of Plattsburgh may be the only carbon neutral city in the country.
But, while that may be good for the environment, it doesn’t mean that simply converting vehicles to electrics means that a household or a community moves any closer to carbon neutrality, as uncomfortable as that reality may be.
OUT OF SIGHT
Like life itself, things are more complicated when one looks more closely.
Two-thirds of the power generated in the U.S. is from fossil fuels. If one draws power from a fossil fuel source to run an electric vehicle, it may be somewhat comforting from an environmental perspective, but it is merely displacing.
Instead of carbon dioxide and effluent emissions from one’s tailpipe, the emissions are hidden in location we don’t see. Out of sight, out of mind isn’t a great policy solution.
There can be a slight advantage from vehicle electrification if the thermal efficiency of a coal or gas-fired power plant is superior to a conventional gasoline engine. However, those efficiency gains are partially lost in transporting electricity from power plants to home chargers.
Of course, we can still feel good about using electric vehicles from a performance perspective, or sometimes even a cost perspective if electricity costs as little as in the City. To truly make a difference environmentally though, we must invest in more sources of sustainable power.
The problem is that wind and solar power, the two best candidates for additional affordable sustainable power, don’t run day and night, 365 days a year. Hydroelectric can, but much of that potential has already been tapped. And batteries are far too expensive to translate periodic power of wind and solar into 24/7 power to run our homes and businesses.
There is a promising technology to augment solar and wind, though. It is pumped hydro. This method uses excess power from sustainable sources when the conditions are right to pump water up into natural or human-made reservoirs on top of a nearby hill or mountain. Then, the electric pumps act is reverse as generators to recover the energy we put into pumping the water up as we draw the water down when we need it. Some energy, perhaps about 10%, is lost in this round trip, but the economics are sound nonetheless.
A recent study demonstrated that this method combined with wind and solar can meet the world’s electric needs. With some vision, our region’s topology and abandoned mineshafts can foster an energy revolution that will also save us money. It’s time we put serious thought into solutions rather than slogans.
Meanwhile, ask your utility how they generate their power.
Colin Read teaches finance and economics at SUNY Plattsburgh and has published a dozen books on local and global finance and economics. He is also mayor of the City of Plattsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.