Electrifying transportation: easy policy, local politics

Like politics, all environmentalism is local. It’s the actions you take as you go about your day that determine the balance in your own personal carbon account with Mother Earth. Fortunately, it is actually very easy, thanks to actions taken by other people years ago, to live extremely cleanly. Here’s how.

The cleanest way you can live is to

  1. Reside in a jurisdiction that has clean electricity.
  2. Reside in an urban high rise in that jurisdiction.
  3. Either walk or cycle or use public transit as much as possible to get to places to you need to get.
  4. If you must drive, drive an electric car that is powered with electricity from your grid.

That’s it. Do those 4 things, and your personal carbon footprint—by which of course I mean your personal carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint—will be far below the annual 15 tons per capita that the International Energy Agency says it is now.

Action 1 is by far the easiest and most decisive thing you can do. In fact, if you live in Canada chances are you are already doing it. About eight in ten Canadians live in one of what I call the Clean Power provinces—Newfoundland-Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia.

This is what I meant when I said that low-carbon living is possible because of actions taken by other people decades ago. As I have said before, the electricity grid was the greatest social equalizing force in human history. Those who built the grids of the First Electrification provided an unprecedented and invaluable public service without which we could not live as we do today. And those who did so in the Canadian Clean Power provinces used hydropower: this ensured that the new liberating energy would be clean (if unfair to those who lived in areas affected by watershed engineering; see article).

In Ontario, the Second Electrification—the expansion of generating capacity that occurred from the 1960s to 1990s, after the grid had brought electricity to most corners of each service area—was based on nuclear and not hydropower. Nuclear energy ensured Ontario stayed electrified as its economy and population burgeoned, in fact it played the leading role in making that happen. And it plays by far the biggest role in keeping our electricity clean today, even as I write this (see Tables A1 and A2 in the left-hand sidebar of this blog), nearly five decades after the Second Electrification began.

Because of the clean electricity in my home jurisdiction, and because I live in a downtown high-rise, I have covered the first two of the actions I listed at the top of this article.

As for the latter two, walking/cycling and getting an electric car: I walk to get to work and for recreation and to do errands; in the summer I cycle.

But the electric car is the only item on that list that I do not have; I drive a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle. Of course, I am in the same boat as the vast majority of my fellow Ontarians who own the other 7.4 million gasoline-powered vehicles in this province. There just are not enough electric vehicles out there to buy, and the ones that are available are too expensive.

This should change. As I mentioned last week, those 7.4 million gasoline powered light duty cars and trucks consumed 15.5 billion liters of gasoline in 2012. When burned, a liter of gasoline turns into 2.3 kilograms of CO2, which means that those 15.5 liters of gasoline turned into 35.6 million metric tons of CO2.

That is more than double the CO2 output of the entire Ontario electric power generation sector.

Now, here is the kicker. The 15.5 billion liters of gasoline contained 138 billion kilowatt-hours of energy. But—only about a fifth of that energy was actually used to move the cars and heat or cool their interiors. The rest was lost as heat to the environment. (See this MIT study on reducing transportation petroleum consumption, Figure 9 on p. 23 of the PDF.) This is a universal reality of heat engines in general and engines employing the Otto (piston) cycle in internal combustion engines in particular.

This means that of the 138 billion kWh in the gasoline that Ontario light cars and trucks used in 2012, only about 27.6 billion kWh actually moved and heated/cooled those cars.

So, to turn those 27.6 billion kWh of Otto-cycle gasoline energy into motive power in 2012, Ontarians dumped 35.6 million metric tons of CO2 into the air. That works out to a CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour (CIPK) of about 1,290 grams. See the info box below for details on how to get that number.

What is the Grid CIPK, and how is it calculated?
CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. The Grid CIPK is a measure of the carbon content of a kilowatt hour of grid electricity.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants within the jurisdiction responsible for that grid, divided by the total amount of electricity fed into that grid over a given hour. Of course, in order to calculate CIPK you have to know both of these figures.

So here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table A1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. Table A1 gives the current Ontario grid generation mix (it draws from data published at www.ieso.ca), and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table A1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MWh column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MWh figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!

Compare that to Ontario’s CIPK of grid electricity at 10:30 this morning (Wednesday, March 26), which was just over 104 grams.

kWh for kWh, Ontario grid  electricity is more than 12 times cleaner than gasoline. It’s also 2.5 times cheaper. Click to enlarge

kWh for kWh, Ontario grid electricity is more than 12 times cleaner than gasoline. It’s also more than 3.6 times cheaper for those who live in urban areas in Ontario. Click to enlarge

Yet, we have been encouraged to cut electricity use! Every major public awareness campaign, from the One Ton Challenge to Earth Hour, has told us to do things like dim the lights. This is just a red herring. People are simply not going to reduce energy consumption. Dimming the lights might make some people feel good, and in itself it is harmless. But really, it is just pseudo-green posturing.

The only thing that will actually reduce CO2 on the scale necessary for making a difference is switching to cleaner energy. As I have shown here, electricity is by far our best bet. And nuclear is by far the best electricity.

What is the CIPK of gasoline-powered transport?
CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. The CIPK of gasoline-powered transport is a measure of the carbon content of the fuel—actually, the CO2 content—of a kilowatt hour of energy converted to power in a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine.

How is the CIPK of gasoline transport calculated?

Burn a liter of gasoline, and you produce 2.3 kilograms of CO2.

Now, a liter of gasoline has an energy density of 32.2 million joules. That works out to 8.9 kilowatt-hours of energy. (A watt is one joule per second and a kilowatt is 1,000 joules per second. One kilowatt-hour is 1,000 watts—or 1,000 joules per second—times one hour. So to convert joules to kilowatt-hours, divide 32.2 million joules by 3,600 seconds = 8,944.4 watts, or 8.9444 kW. Multiply each of those 8.9444 kW by one hour and the hours cancel out. Hence kWh is a unit of energy, not power.)

So each liter of gasoline contains 8.9 kWh of total thermal energy and 2.3 kg of CO2.

You could stop here and say that those numbers yield a CIPK of 2.3 kg divided by 8.9 kWh = 258.4 grams. That would be true if you were able to actually use all of those 8.9 kWh of energy to move your car down the road and keep it heated or cooled and run the pumps and lights and radio and windows and mirrors.

But you can’t. The efficiency of the thermodynamic cycle employed in gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, i.e., the Otto Cycle, is around 20 percent. That is, of those 8.9 kWh, you only can actually use 1.78 kWh to move your car and run its internal systems. The other 7.12 kWh is lost, mostly as engine heat.

So to obtain the true CIPK of a gasoline powered engine, you have to divide the total amount of CO2 that you produce, 2.3 kg, by the kWh you can actually use.

So the true CIPK of gasoline-powered car transport is 2.3 kg divided by 1.78 kWh = 1,292 grams.

We need more electric cars, and we need them now. Push your member of Parliament, and your member of Provincial Parliament, for policy that gets more electric cars onto our roads.

Because all environmentalism is local. Just like politics.

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Andrew Jaremko
6 years ago

Steve – thanks for this post and the jaw-dropping CPIK for my vehicle. I should have been able to figure that one out myself. Switching to an electric vehicle would even make sense here in dirty Alberta, with its about 720 grams per kWh CPIK.

6 years ago

I’m afraid that any solution which calls for people to adopt the ultra-urban lifestyle will fail for a number of different reasons:

1.  Living in towers is very difficult for families.
2.  People without personal automobiles are highly vulnerable to street crime, esp. the elderly, when grocery shopping is both essential and risky.
3.  There are many who simply cannot abide having their bedroom ceiling be someone else’s floor, or the lack of outdoor room.
4.  Livable spaces are far cheaper in suburbia than skyscrapers.
5.  There’s just plain a lack of such buildings compared to the population.

De-carbonizing is mostly going to involve upgrading the buildings we’ve got.  Even China is running into difficulties with its push to build entire new cities.  We’re not willing or able to do that.

Philip nasadowski
6 years ago

Easy way to de-carbonize the commutes of many, without any lifestyle changes at all. Electrify the commuter lines of GO Transit. There’s a side bonus: electric trains are quieter and faster than diesels, making the trip faster and more pleasant. And making them better neighbors, too.

Of course, such a logical answer is dragging through study after study after study, instead of implementing a technology that works everywhere else in the world (even in the US!)