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The Energy Infrastructure - Self-Righteous Environmentalism, Electric Vehicles and Electric Power Plants (Updated)


This week - and to much fanfare - Microsoft announced they would not only be 'carbon neutral,' they would be carbon negative.  Carbon in this case means CO2, and Microsoft was claiming that eventually their operations would take more CO2 out of the air than they put in.  Last I checked, Microsoft made software so I am not exactly sure how software will spontaneously remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  That said, where there's a trillion dollar market cap, there is likely to be a way. 

Lost in the self-congratulations over their announcement - which will surely be a hot topic of conversation among the billionaires discussing climate change at the upcoming Davos conference (1) - is any serious discussion of what Microsoft is claiming to do.  Anyone who stops to think about today's computer infrastructure must immediately recognize that the electrical energy - and thus the CO2 generation - is not associated with manufacturing the software.  Instead, the computer industry's contribution to atmospheric CO2 is in the energy needed to operate the computers.  Of course recognizing this obvious fact completely exposes the emptiness of Microsoft's position on CO2, and the artificially narrow goal Microsoft is claiming as a significant accomplishment.  Microsoft's entire reason for existing is computers and computers inhale electricity.  For Microsoft then to make much of its carbon neutrality when it is in an industry that completely relies on prodigious amounts of electricity generation is transparently bogus and self-serving.

We see something similar with much of the discussion around electric vehicles; all sorts of bold proclamations and very little understanding of the bigger picture.  In the same way it is meaningless for Microsoft to crow about its carbon policy when it is part of an industry that requires enormous amounts of electrical energy, people regularly put the electrical vehicle cart in front of the electrical energy horse.  Specifically, today, there is a movement to stop any investment in fossil fuels.  What would be the implications of such a policy as it relates to transportation?  After all, if we as a society stop investing in fossil fuels like gasoline, it won't be long before we don't have any gasoline.  So in this world - which can't come soon enough for many today - without gasoline, how will people move around and what will be the new energy source that powers transportation?

Of, course, in many ways the future - or at least some version of it - is already here in the form of electric vehicles (EVs).  While EVs still form a fairly small part of today's auto market, they are becoming increasingly popular.  Indeed, the market cap of Tesla has soared passed many of its larger rivals including, BMW, Ford and GM.  At their current level of market penetration, EVs haven't had a major impact on the energy infrastructure of the United States.  However, at some threshold level of EV usage, it can no longer be taken for granted that electrical energy will be available to power EVs, at least without the construction of new power plants.

In the analysis below, a 'back of the envelope' analysis is conducted to determine how many power plants it will take to replace the energy consumed by today's gasoline powered automobiles.  The answer, roughly 163 utility sized (1000-MW) power plants. To put some perspective on that number of power plants, the total electrical generating capacity of the United States is equal to approximately 600 utility sized (1000-MW) power plants! 

In purely practical terms , the US needs to increase its electrical generating capacity by 27% to provide (replace) the energy that today's gasoline engines provide! 

For the sake of the discussion here, we will ignore where all the energy will come from to fuel all these new power plants.  Anyone with even the most basic understanding of the enormous capital invested in America's electrical energy generation infrastructure immediately recognizes that increasing this capacity by 27% is a Herculean task, and can't be completed quickly.  (It would likely take decades.)  Because this new generation capacity can't be created quickly, gasoline must continue to be used as a transition fuel to allow the EV infrastructure to be built out.  Such a transition period is of course completely incompatible with freezing investments in fossil fuels now. 

The fact that few people fail to connect these rather self-evident dots is a pretty damning indictment of the way environmental and energy issues are discussed today. 


According to Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2018 the US consumed 143-billion gallons of gasoline. (2)  In engineering terms, an automobile engine is a 'heat engine.'  What an automobile engine does is it converts the chemical energy in a fuel into heat.  (It does this by burning the fuel).  The engine then converts this heat into mechanical energy of the vehicle.  As will be discussed below, a tremendous amount of energy is lost in the conversion of chemical energy into heat.  These losses are a direct consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and are unavoidable. 

Because a gasoline engine is a heat engine, only a small fraction of the gasoline's energy, 22% for the discussion here, is converted into mechanical energy of the vehicle.  So, the analysis will proceed as follows;

  • Determine how much chemical energy is in the gasoline fuel
  • Determine how much gasoline energy is in the (mechanical) energy of today's automobiles
  • Determine how much electrical energy it will take to provide the mechanical energy in today's automobiles

Determine how much energy is in the gasoline fuel;

Convert this energy into power by dividing by time(hp);

This figure is the total 'power' that can be produced by all the gasoline that is consumed in the United States in one year.  However, recall the discussion about the Second Law of Thermodynamics above, only about 22% of this 'power' is converted into power as measured by a vehicle in motion.  With this being the case the 'useful power' produced by burning 143-billion gallons of gasoline in one year is then 186.2-million horsepower, 846x106 *0.22.  (3) 

Power plants are not rated in horsepower.  They are rated in a unit of power called a megawatt (MW).  There are 1,346-HP in 1-MW.  Convert the useful power into MW.

Convert the 'useful power' in vehicles to the electrical power required from power plants
The Second Law of Thermodynamics also intervenes in the energy analysis of EVs.  However, the losses are not nearly as great as they are with a heat engine like an automobile energy.  (Electrical energy is a higher 'quality' source of energy than heat.)  Electric motors are routinely 95% efficient.  I am hardly an expert on batteries, but there will be some losses as batteries charge and discharge.  For the sake of the discussion here, lets use 85% as the total efficiency for the entire EV apparatus, motors, batteries, charging/discharging, drive train losses etc.  To determine the number of power plants needed to produce the 'useful power' in today's vehicles, then requires dividing the useful power by 85%;

A utility sized power plant is 1000-MW.  As a result, in an all electric vehicle future, it will take about 163 utility sized power plants to provide the 'power' used by today's gasoline engines.  As will be discussed in next week's blog post, there are about 600 utility sized power plants in the US.  Thus, 163 power plants is an enormous number of power plants, 27% of current generating capacity!


Peter Schmidt
Sugar Land, TX
January 19, 2020
(Updated January 26, 2020)

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1.  Erin Corbett, "More and Bigger Private Jets Landing at Davos as Leaders Discuss Climate Change," Fortune, January 22, 2019


3.  A moving vehicle has 'energy' not power.  Rather than getting into the nuance of these engineering quantities, I am using the terms energy and power interchangeably.  Strictly speaking these are separate quantities, but treating them as interchangeable makes the analysis a little more straightforward.  The end result is unaltered by this convention.