Category Archives: environment

America’s Missing Electricity Generation Capacity

How much more electricity generation capacity needs to be added to the U.S. power grid to fuel a complete conversion electric cars?

Last week, we took on the personal finance question of whether a petroleum or electric-powered vehicle is the better buy, but we didn't stop to consider where that electricity comes from. The following chart shows the mix of sources that Americans used to power the U.S. economy with 4,109 terawatt-hours (TWh), or 4,109 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), in 2020.

2020 U.S. Electricity Generation by Type

The most important thing to recognize about this chart is that only an exceptionally small fraction of all that power generated actually goes to charge up electric-powered vehicles. Nearly all of that generated electricity is used instead for other purposes, which means that if Americans are to fully switch over to electric vehicles, the country needs to significantly boost its electric generation capacity to provide the juice they will need to run.

So how many cars are we talking about? For a visual frame of reference, the next chart shows how tiny the share of electric vehicles was in 2020. (For simplicity, we've grouped all electric vehicles into the Automobiles category).

2020 U.S. Vehicle Mix by Type

From here, we just need to know that the average electric vehicle consumes 34.6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to travel 100 miles, and we can run some back-of-the-envelope numbers to find out how much more electricity generation capacity will be needed to avoid things that would lower the quality of life for Americans or harm the economy, like rolling blackouts.

We built a tool to do the math. If you're accessing this tool on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, please click through to our site to access a working version.

Electric Car and Power Generation Data
Input Data Values
Number of Electric Vehicles Being Added to U.S. Roads
Average Electricity Consumed per 100 miles Driven [kWh]
Average Annual Miles Driven per Vehicle
Power Generation Capacity Factor

America's Missing Electricity Generation Capacity
Calculated Results Values
Additional Electricity Generation Needed [TWh]

For our default data, we find that the U.S. power grid will need to expand its capacity by 583.0 TWh per year to accommodate the power needs of 104,124,090 electric vehicles. Today, that additional needed electricity generation capacity is missing from the United States' power grid.

This result assumes the new electricity generation capacity comes from nuclear energy, which according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is the most reliable source of electricity. Of course, there are other ways to generate electricity, for which you can substitute the EIA's indicated capacity factors for those other sources in our tool.

U.S. Capacity Factor by Energy Source - 2021

As you'll find, your choice of how that electricity is generated has a huge impact on how much more electricity generation capacity will be needed just to power electric vehicles.

References

Daly, Lyle. How Many Cars Are in the U.S.? Car Ownership Statistics 2022. Motley Fool. [Online Article]. 18 May 2022.

International Energy Agency (IEA). Electric Vehicles. [Online Report]. November 2021. Accessed 10 September 2022.

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy. What Is Generation Capacity? [Online Article]. 1 May 2020.

Wallach, Omri. Road to Decarbonization: The United States Electricity Mix. Visual Capitalist. [Online Article]. 31 August 2021.

Is a Gasoline or Electric Powered Car the Better Buy?

Earlier this summer, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) made news as she bragged high gasoline prices don't matter to her because she drives an electric car, a Chevrolet Bolt EUV, which allows her to drive past gas stations without having to pay for petrol. Here's video of her statement:

While high gasoline prices may not matter to the senator, they may matter to you if you're considering following her example and buying an electric-powered vehicle. Do they provide a bigger bang for the buck for their owners than a petroleum-fueled vehicle?

To find out, we need to compare gasoline and electric powered vehicles that are as similar as possible to one another. Unfortunately, we cannot do that with the Chevy Bolt because there isn't a gasoline-powered version of that vehicle. But we can do that with a Mini Cooper Hardback 2-Door, which comes in gasoline-fueled and electric-powered versions.

We've entered the data for both these vehicles as the default entries in the following tool. If you're accessing this article on a site that republishes our RSS newsfeed, please click through to our site to access a working version to find out how different their costs of ownership, or the vehicles whose data you might enter instead, may be over three years.

Gasoline-Fueled vs Electric-Powered Vehicle Data
Input Data Gasoline Electric
Vehicle Purchase Price
Government Tax Credit/Subsidy (if Available)
Maintenance Costs (Over 3 Years)
Depreciation Costs (Over 3 Years)
Energy Consumption (Fuel Gallons or kWh) per 100 miles
Average Cost of Fuel (per Gallon) or Electricity (per kWh)
Mileage Data
Input Data Values
Average Annual Distance Driven (miles)

Estimated Cost of Ownership Over Three Years
Calculated Results Gasoline Electric
Total Energy Cost
Total Out of Pocket Ownership Cost
Is a Gasoline or Electric Car the Better Buy?

Most of the default data in the tool comes from a Car and Driver article from 2020, which we've updated with early September 2022's average gasoline cost and electricity cost data, both of which you can update as needed with more current gasoline and electricity costs that apply in your region.

The vehicle cost data comes from Edmunds, which we extracted during 2022's Labor Day Holiday weekend. We should note that the electric version of the Mini Cooper Hardtop 2-Door appears to have increased by $4,115 since the federal EV tax credit of $7,500 was enacted as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. The manufacturer's suggested retail price of the gasoline fueled version of the vehicle was unchanged. Other manufacturers have similarly hiked their electric vehicle prices in the weeks since the government subsidy for electric vehicles was passed.

For the default data loaded in the tool, we find the gasoline powered version of the Mini Cooper Hardtop 2-Door is the better buy. Playing with the tool, we found an average gasoline price of $6.37 per gallon with the electricity cost unchanged would be needed to make the electric vehicle a less costly choice over three years of ownership. But, as they say, your mileage may differ - take the tool for your own test drive!

Rate of Atmospheric CO₂ Accumulation Points to Rebound for Global Economy

August 2022 saw a rebound in the rate at which carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth's atomosphere. That change directly follows July 2022's rebounds for the U.S. and China following months of sluggish economic activity in both countries during the first half of 2022.

That's the latest development for the global economy as measured by atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration data recorded at the remote Mauna Loa Observatory. The rebound can seen in the latest update to Political Calculations' chart revealing the rate at which CO₂ accumulates in the Earth's air.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - August 2022

China is, by far and away, the world's biggest producer of carbon dioxide emissions, a status it has undisputably held since 2006. In 2020, China's CO₂ emissions were nearly 2.3 times larger than those of the second-ranked United States, accounting for almost 31% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. The two countries together accounted for 44.2% of the world's CO₂ emissions, which is directly linked to the output of their national economies.

That China's economy was struggling during the first half of 2022 was confirmed by the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which measured a decline in China's CO₂ output:

China’s carbon emissions fell almost 8 per cent in the April-to-June quarter compared with the same period last year, the sharpest decline in the past decade, according to climate research service Carbon Brief.

The fall in emissions reflects a dramatic slowing in Chinese economic growth caused by large-scale coronavirus lockdowns and a crisis in the heavily indebted property sector. It was the fourth consecutive quarter in which emissions have fallen in China, the world’s biggest emitter.

Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which compiled the data for Carbon Brief, said there had been a drop of 44 per cent in the number of construction projects started and a 33 per cent fall in those completed during the second quarter.

Lauri Myllyvirta's analysis for China is available here, which indicates "emissions from power generation have rebounded in July and August". Given the several week lag for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration data to reflect changes in economic activity, we anticipate the next month's data will continue showing upward movement in the pace at which carbon dioxide accumulates in the air.

References

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 5 September 2022. Accessed 5 September 2022.

Global Economy Continues Cooling in July 2022

According to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration data collected at the remote Mauna Loa Observatory, Earth's economy continued to cool in July 2022.

That outcome can be seen in the latest update to Political Calculations' chart tracking the pace at which CO₂ accumulates in the Earth's air.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - July 2022

A falling rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere corresponds to falling levels of economic output. It also occurs as China's economy strengthened following the lifting of its government's zero-COVID lockdowns in several regions and as the U.S. economy likely continued shrinking or stagnating in real terms. The falling rate of CO₂ accumulation points to the established negative trend in the U.S. economy more than offsetting China's economic rebound.

All in all, it's pretty amazing what you can see about the global economy from the side of a remote volcano!

Mauna Loa Observatory at Sunset - Source: NOAA - https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/mlo/pictures/sunsetmaunaloa1.jpg

References

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 5 August 2022. Accessed 5 August 2022.

The Lurking Chaos in Ecosystems

There's been a remarkable development in the field of ecology. An established belief that chaotic dynamics are a relatively rare factor in shaping ecosystems has turned out to not be true.

The story of how that discovery was made is just as interesting as the discovery itself. Here's how Quanta Magazine's Joanna Thompson tells it:

Tanya Rogers was looking back through the scientific literature for recent studies on chaos in ecosystems when she discovered something unexpected: No one had published a quantitative analysis of it in over 25 years. “It was kind of surprising,” said Rogers, a research ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the new study’s first author. “Like, ‘I can’t believe no one’s done this.’”

So she decided to do it herself. Analyzing more than 170 sets of time-dependent ecosystem data, Rogers and her colleagues found that chaos was present in a third of them — nearly three times more than the estimates in previous studies. What’s more, they discovered that certain groups of organisms, like plankton, insects and algae, were far more prone to chaos than larger organisms like wolves and birds.

The signs of chaos had been there all along, lurking within the reams of accumulated ecological data. But earlier researchers had missed it because their models were too simple. It wasn't until Rogers and her fellow researchers applied more complex models that the telltale signs of chaotic influences could be teased out.

The new results from Rogers, Munch and their Santa Cruz mathematician colleague Bethany Johnson, however, suggest that the older work missed where the chaos was hiding. To detect chaos, the earlier studies used models with a single dimension — the population size of one species over time. They didn’t consider corresponding changes in messy real-world factors like temperature, sunlight, rainfall and interactions with other species that might affect populations. Their one-dimensional models captured how the populations changed, but not why they changed.

But Rogers and Munch “went looking for [chaos] in a more sensible way,” said Aaron King, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study. Using three different complex algorithms, they analyzed 172 time series of different organisms’ populations as models with as many as six dimensions rather than just one, leaving room for the potential influence of unspecified environmental factors. In this way, they could check whether unnoticed chaotic patterns might be embedded within the one-dimensional representation of the population shifts. For example, more rainfall might be chaotically linked to population increases or decreases, but only after a delay of several years.

In the population data for about 34% of the species, Rogers, Johnson and Munch discovered, the signatures of nonlinear interactions were indeed present, which was significantly more chaos than was previously detected. In most of those data sets, the population changes for the species did not appear chaotic at first, but the relationship of the numbers to underlying factors was. They could not say precisely which environmental factors were responsible for the chaos, but whatever they were, their fingerprints were on the data.

This is exactly the kind of study that spawns new research. The effort to find out what factors are at play and how they interact with each other will shape generations of work in the now understood to be underdeveloped field of ecological population growth dynamics.

We would expect the initial phase of that new work to resemble the equivalent of a design of experiments in statistics to verify which factors are most influential, followed by more detailed studies into the effects of their interactions over time. It's an exciting development for a field that's now coming out of a period of stagnation no one knew it was in as a result of the discovery.

More Information

For some basic information on how chaos can influence ecological population dynamics, we found Numberphile's 19-minute video on the Feigenbaum constant provides a nice introduction to the surprisingly simple population modeling math that produces chaotic outcomes:

For more background, we've also built a tool to model the chaotic growth of the population of a species over time. Our post also features Veratiseum's video exploring the logistic map and its role in the emergence of complexity.

We can also point you to HHMI Bioactive's Population Dynamics simulator, which features a good primer on the simpler logistic growth model math that wasn't capturing the extent of chaotic influences found by Rogers, Johnson and Munch.

References

Rogers, T.L., Johnson, B.J. & Munch, S.B. Chaos is not rare in natural ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution. Volume 6, pp 1105–1111. (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-022-01787-y.