Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence

Plug in hybrids are the only alternative fuel vehicle that can provide genuine energy independence from steadily rising oil prices and brutal price spikes.

I have agreed to participate as a guest blogger for ScienceBlogs in a three-month project on the next generation of energy ideas. My first post is “Electric Vehicles: The Next Generation.” Longtime readers of this blog or my books know that I have been an advocate of plug ins for a number of years [see “Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution, nationally and globally” and “Plug in Hybrids are Green (Duh!)“].


The key point of this piece is that “Only one alternative fuel can significantly lower the annual fuel bill of U.S. consumers while at the same time significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions — electricity.”

Biofuels — whether from crops or cellulosic material — are likely to be sold at the market price for gasoline. That’s because it is extremely difficult to see how they could be produced in the kind of nearly unlimited quality you would need for them to dominate the liquid transportation fuels market for the foreseeable future. The same is true for offshore, Alaskan, or unconventional oil.

The price of electricity, however, is not linked to the price of oil.

Gasoline prices have gove up some 200% in recent years, whereas electricity prices have only gone up about one tenth as much. Gasoline prices are likely to rise 50% to 100% over the next decade. Again, electricity prices might rise another 10% or 20%. We simply have too many electricity sources for prices to rise much even if we adopt a strong carbon cap. These include rapidly expanding low carbon technologies like wind, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar thermal electric, which may actually see price declines as they gain market share.

Thus, only plug in hybrids (and ultimately pure electric cars) offer permanent, practical, low-polluting freedom from the misery of peak oil.

[Note: Some have criticized the Shell sponsorship of Scienceblogs. But Shell exerts no editorial control, so I’ll let others lose sleep over this. Personally, while I once admired Shell, especially their strategic planning about global warming and renewable energy, their pursuit of tar sands and, even worse, oil shale, makes clear they are simply another short-term-profit-maximizing long-term-climate-destroying oil company.]

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41 Responses to Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence

  1. dotcommodity says:

    I agree with you. We simply cannot grow enough or dig enough to continue with the internal combustion engine, aside from the folly of destroying our habitat, which we need to survive as a species. I have put together a comprehensive update of all the major automakers electric vehicles coming by 2010 here :

    Cars After The Age of Oil

    (and by major, I do include new companies that are shipping real solutions to gas free driving like Tesla, which just started shipping the Roadster and is to provide the battery tech for Mercedes-Benz.)

  2. paul says:

    A couple of questions about electric cars.

    The viability of the electric car right now is not extremely comercially high because the average family can’t just drive to Disney World from New York unless they stop at least 3 times.

    I can drive to Disney from my home in North Carolina in 10 hours. When I last did it, I stopped twice to fuel up. The current advantage a gasoline powered car has is that the stop to fuel up took me about 5 minutes each time. It takes too long for an electric car to “fill up”.

    1) Is there an infrastructure in place, or going into place to provide swappable batteries for faster transition “refueling”?
    2) Is there any research currently being done into the idea of using wind power (mini-turbines) in the front of the vehicles to generate replacement energy to at least lengthen the lifespan of the batteries?
    3) Same question about using the axles, driveshaft, etc.

    I’d like to see more electric cars on the road myself, but just can’t seem to find the resources about them enough to figure out if they’re going to end up being the commercially viable alternative.


  3. Bob Wallace says:

    “I can drive to Disney from my home in North Carolina in 10 hours. ”

    Unless you have a very unusual lifestyle, this is not something that you do every day, week, or month.

    A very, very few people might drive hundreds of miles per day, electric cars are not for them. (Although a plug-in hybrid would cut their costs some.)

    For those occasional long trips taken by ‘normal’ people there are rental cars.

    Wind turbines on the front of the car – won’t work. You’d be using power to push the car into the air to create wind. Then loosing energy in the process of converting that flow of air into electricity.

    Axles, drive shafts, those moving parts. We need to get rid of them. Between 10% and 20% of the energy produced by the engine (fuel or electric) is lost in the drive train.

    Better to put a small electric engine in each wheel hub. Make the route from battery to wheel as short and straight as possible.

    (Hub electric motors were used in electric cars a hundred years ago. Not a new idea.)

    Commercially/economically viable?

    Let’s say you drive the US average, 12,000 per year, 231 miles a week.

    If you drive a 20 MPG car you’re going to spend about $200 a month buying $4 gas. If you trade for a 40 MPG car you’re gas bill is going to be about $100 a month.

    If you had an electric car that used 0.26 kWh per mile (Tesla performance) and paid $0.105 per kWh for your electricity, then you’d spend about $33 a month for your ‘fuel’.

    The difference between $100 *12 and $33 *12 would more than pay for an occasional fuel car rental.

    (Fill up with off-peak electricity and save even more.)

  4. Brewster says:

    Paul, I agree that pure electric vehicles are still a bit away, if for no other reason than having enough battery in a reasonable sized vehicle for long trips would be a ridiculous cost.

    But Plug-Ins are a good alternative, letting you run pure electic for normal trips (most of us don’t go to Disney World very often) whuilke still habving a gas/ethanol engine for the longer ones.

    If you haven’t seen it before, try the website.

  5. Ronald says:


    What you are asking for in a motor vehicle is what General Motors is designing and building right now, the Volt. Which is a PHEV or plug-in hybrid electirc vehicle. There is a good article on it in the Atlantic this month. The GM’s Volt might be coming out with 40 miles of batteries and then the gas engine takes over. Cost for the Volt was to be 35 000 dollars.

    The vehicle will have both a carbon fuel engine for long trips and an electric battery for the shorter trips.

    Putting wind turbines on the front of cars wouldn’t make any sense since it would takes force to move the car thru the air and that would be lost with the wind turbines wind resistance.

    The prius and other cars with batteries do try to pick up the energy lost in slowing down the vehicle. Instead of the energy of a vehicle going fast to going slow goes into heating up the brakes with regular braking the energy goes into charging up the battery a little bit.

  6. Ben says:

    Does anyone else have a problem with planning our transportation network to facilitate trips to disney? Let us make it easy to get to work and the grocery store. Disney availability is not a high priority compared to global warming.

  7. paul says:

    Well, considering the fact that the average Tesla is a LOT more expensive than the average car is today, and my minivan is what I currently use to make the trip to work, camp, etc to take my kids around, I’d have to say that from my standpoint, and a lot of consumers, Tesla’s Roadster isn’t viable. At a cost of $109,000, compared to the current cost of $20000 for my minivan, that $100/month savings you tout are gone. It would take me on the order of 75 years to recover the cost factor, and I still wouldn’t be able to get all the stuff together to drive around town.

    Also, until 2 months ago, I was driving daily 150 miles back and forth to work.

    Axles, drive shafts and other moving parts, as much as we need to get rid of them, right now, they’re part of the world of driving we know. Why not try to use their motion to also add to the life expentancy of the batteries?


  8. paul says:

    Ben, you’re forgetting one thing.

    Mom and Pop America won’t give up their gas car and that potential trip to Disney or the beach or the mountains or whereever they want to go just because it will save the world. The average person says “What I’m doing is minimal, and let someone else save the world.” This is not a campaign that will win over people’s hearts and minds.

    I’m not saying planning the transportation network around trips to Disney. I’m saying planning it around the basic fact that people own cars because they want the freedom to get in their car and go. It doesn’t matter if it’s to the beach, the mountains, Disney, the other side of the country, the other side of the street. They want the freedom to go. And to try to shove a car down thier throats they’re not going to want becuase it’s “for the environment” isn’t a winning position. Giving them the freedom to go as well as the cost reduction as well as the cleaner living, they’ll jump at it. But, restrict their freedom or their pocket, and they’re going to balk.


  9. JMG says:

    Interesting that you say that the price of electricity is not linked to the price of oil — that’s only true in a world full of coal plants, which is a world with no future, or a world powered by nuclear plants, which we cannot attain even if there was a consensus in favor of doing so (we cannot build 2 plants a day for the next 50 years).

    A meaningful price on carbon emissions means making a LOT of electricity from natural gas, which will complete the link between electric and oil (as gas prices are linked directly to oil prices).

  10. Brewster says:

    JMG, whatever happened to wind and solar?

  11. MeltyMan says:

    Yes: EV’s please, asap; but here’s another idea: How many of us really need to *go* to work? If we could work out systems where employers allow office workers to work at home, we’d have a bunch if guys achieving….. Infinity mpg!


    — infinity mpg!
    — results-dependent (it’s easy to know whether work is done or not)
    — productivity gains (no loss of time in traffic jams/cancelled trains)
    — higher disposable incomes
    — no global warming pollution (heat/cool the office, not the whole house)
    — speeds us towards more efficient, paperless working environment
    — we pretty much all have broadband and fast, capacious computers.
    — psychological benefits (lower stress levels; home comforts)

    What’s not to like?

    Paul: Tesla == minivan? What are you smokin’? The Tesla is just about the fastest car you can buy outside a $500,000 Ferrari.

  12. paul says:

    I was looking at the “If you had an electric car that used 0.26 kWh per mile (Tesla performance) and paid $0.105 per kWh for your electricity, then you’d spend about $33 a month for your ‘fuel’.” comment, and looked up the cost on the Tesla. The average electric is significantly higher than it’s comparable gas-based sibling.

  13. Albert says:

    Paul, the Tesla Roadster isn’t meant to compete with your minivan, it’s meant to compete with high end hundred thousand dollar sports cars. Like others have said here, take a look at GM’s Volt plans — and that is still not meant to compete with minivans. It’s clear that the technology is approaching the point where it can be provided at a cost that makes it more than competetive, especially if oil keeps rising in price.

  14. Atmoz says:


    Thanks for the post, link, and comment. I also applaud you on a great post here. My concern with the first post by Sheril was that it seemed to be taken directly from Shell talking points. I agree 100% that cellulosic ethanol will not help reduce the price of oil, and that the solution is likely to be electricity.

    Again, thanks for the good post. I’m glad to see that you’re still talking about real solutions.

  15. Dennis says:

    Ben is right about the “trip to Disneyland” nonsense, but Paul has a point as well about people not wanting to give up the option. The solution is hybrids combined with carbon taxes. That makes the trip to the store and work free of the tax, but the trip to disneyland will cost you. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I beleive most of our fuel consumption is a result of commuting and and around our urban areas. If you make it more expense to drive to disneyland, then more people will take the train (there’s another solution!) and just rent an electric when they get down there. I would also make Interstate highways toll roads.

  16. Earl Killian says:

    Tesla’s Roadster is meant to compete with Ferraris and Lamborghinis. To use this as a representative pure battery EV is distortion. Use the 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV if you want something more representative of the average car. (302 Wh/mi, $42,000 MSRP)

  17. Earl Killian says:

    paul says, “The viability of the electric car right now is not extremely comercially high because the average family can’t just drive to Disney World from New York unless they stop at least 3 times.

    First, Joe is primarily advocating plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which have no problem driving NY to FL. They do it better than conventional vehicles (CVs) because of their hybrid advantages.

    Second, pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are commercially viable as the primary commute vehicle in a multi-vehicle household (which are quite common, in my experience). One does not, after all, drive all of the family vehicles to Disneyland. In the future, PHEVs will likely have a BEV option where the range extending ICE is replaced by a larger battery pack (sort of like there being an automatic/manual transmission option today). Many families may opt for one PHEV (for long trips), and one BEV (for the most efficient commuting). BEVs don’t have nearly the maintenance requirements of CVs, HEVs, or PHEVs because they lack engines, spark plugs, carburetors, radiators, oil filters, air filters, radiators, alternators, transmissions, catalytic converters, mufflers, and so on (in short, most of the high maintenance stuff).

  18. Leo Petr says:

    Electricity is not a fuel, at least not in the energy independence sense. You need to make it, whether by burning oil, natural gas, or coal; fissing uranium; capturing sunlight; capturing geothermal whatever; or capturing the motion of wind, rivers, and tides.

    For various reasons, US power plants don’t have a lot of spare capacity. For a mass switch to electric cars to work, you’d need massive power plant construction.

  19. Earl Killian says:

    Leo Petr says, “For various reasons, US power plants don’t have a lot of spare capacity. For a mass switch to electric cars to work, you’d need massive power plant construction.

    You are obviously not aware that US power plants do have a lot of spare capacity at night. It would be better if you did some research before posting incorrect information. A government lab, PNL, studied the situation and found “For the United States as a whole, up to 84% of U.S. cars, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) could be supported by the existing infrastructure, although the local percentages vary by region.” Somehow I think PNL is better informed than you are. See also what EPRI (a utility research group) says about PHEVs.

  20. David B. Benson says:


    India will soon have 4 million acres of Jatropha for biodiesel.

    Also, there is still lots of room in Africa and South America. Give up the chimera of ‘energy independence’.

  21. Robert says:

    This is supposed to be a climate change site!

    The first priority is to phase out all coal burning power stations, which will unfortunately eliminate most of our electricity.

    Can’t you guys learn to enjoy being where you are. Stop rushing round in ever decreasing circles, put your feet up and throw away the car keys. Forget Disney – its boring anyway.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Robert is right. But CSP is on its way.

  23. You got to push for electric drive transport and renewables at the same time to get the combination of positive effects that most people on this blog are looking for. PHEV, battery electric vehicles and On-grid electric vehicles like electric trains, trolleybuses etc. It’s got to be a push on all fronts, if you want to simultaneously get off oil, protect the climate, etc. (Therefore the Renewable Electron Economy idea I keep yelling about.)

    You are about at the same place in terms of emissions if you use a petroleum car and you used mostly coal-generated electricity to charge up your battery. There have been a number of studies that show this, including Tesla’s own. The efficiency of the electric vehicle makes up for the carbon intensity of coal fired generation vs. cleaner petroleum in an internal combustion vehicle.

    Selecting vehicles for their convenience for a trip to Disneyland or even for a 150 mile round trip commute may not be a choice that oil markets will allow many of us to make anymore. Oil is starting to be valued closer to its true worth as a fuel (if you added in a price for carbon, you would get incrementally closer). Using electricity to get where we need to go is the wave of the future, with some inconveniences in the beginning but less as we get better at building electric drive vehicles and an electric drive transport system.

    I am hoping we will use more of remaining reserve of still cheap oil to fuel the construction vehicles that we will need to build a renewable energy and electric transport infrastructure.

  24. Earl Killian says:

    Robert said, “The first priority is to phase out all coal burning power stations, which will unfortunately eliminate most of our electricity.

    It need not eliminate most of our electricity, if phase in energy efficiency at the same time we phase out coal. We could get rid of 1,200 TWh per year of coal by 2030 (that includes providing for increasing population). Coal was 1,991 TWh in 2006, so this is significant. Of course we should do more, but this is the most important step. The 1,200 TWh is based on a spreadsheet model where the worst 40 states approach the efficiency of the best 10 states in proportion to new construction and remodels. It of course assumes leadership in Washington, but that’s the one thing that is AWOL.

  25. Earl Killian says:

    Michael Hoexter, I sympathize with your sentiments, but I think the most likely path to success is one where we don’t ask Americans to sacrifice. Americans haven’t done sacrifice well since World War II. There was some in the 1970s, but America hated it, and rebelled and elected Reagan. Look where that got us. It is important to not generate a backlash or we are really cooked.

  26. Earl,
    Soft pedaling what really is a monumental change in infrastructure and attitude is selling people short I believe. I think addressing people only as consumers is not going to get us where we need to go. People are also producers of value and citizens, perspectives which are left out of presenting the climate and energy solution simply as a choice at the door of the car showroom of the, we hope, not too distant future.

    The election of Reagan had a lot to do with the fact that many Americans felt left out of what the liberal left thought were the good things of the 1960’s and 70’s. Carter’s defeat was spurred by his appearance of weakness in the Iranian hostage crisis (he didn’t lose by that much) and Reagan’s phenomenal mastery of rhetoric and Americana. In addition, many of the entitlement programs of the 60’s were focused on the poor and were not perceived as benefits for all Americans. Reagan, as you probably know, mobilized a racialist and racist element which also have been key to Republican strength until recently.

    We can present this alternative (the Renewable Electron Economy) as the most aggressive and pro-active solution to our energy and climate woes, unlike Carter’s seeming moralism and timidity (conservation and individual sacrifice). This is program to put America back to work on the pressing issues of the day that effect everyone here and around the world.

    I think we have a choice of sacrifices: sacrifice that will be forced upon us by fossil fuel markets or sacrifice that we endure to achieve ends that most people think are positive.

  27. dotcommodity says:

    Electric cars that will be available in 2010 will be in a range of prices, and keep going down. Computers used to be $100,000 like the first Tesla, now they are much more mass market and cheaper. People will buy used ones, etc.

    EVs available now range from $7,000 GEMs (slowed speed) to $100,000 Tesla Roadsters. Most of the major automakers models in 2010 are in the $20,000 to $40,000 range.

  28. John Mashey says:

    re: robert & climate change site

    climate change

    are inextricably intertwined in generating policy, or at least, should be [there do seem to be some disconnects)

  29. David B. Benson says:

    Electric cars? Fine. But there remains a lot of freight to move. All goes via diesel now.

    I’m having trouble with the idea of electric long haul trucks. Even delivery trucks.

  30. David B. Benson says:

    And then there is the world’s ocean fleet of something like 70,000–90,000 vessels, all energized by petroleum products.

    Ain’t gonna electrify them.

  31. David,
    Electric trucks for local delivery are currently a reality (Smith Electric, Modec), especially in Britain. They have a 120 mile range and 50mph top speed.

    Electrified rights of way are a proven way to go for long distance land freight. Electrified rail routes and I believe electrified roadways with dual mode freight vehicles not unlike Boston Silver Line buses. There should be little resistance to the former in the current context and the latter involves solving some logistical and minor technical challenges.

    Eventually mobile electric storage will probably get a lot more energy dense but right now, that would need a few of those dreaded breakthroughs to start to challenge the utility of diesel.

    Biofuels have a future in marine and aviation fuels. I’m only wishing that the biofuels community would get together around (or have imposed on it) sustainability standards for biofuel production.

  32. Earl Killian says:

    David, to add to Michael’s reply, Smith already has a facility in the US, and is planning to open another. And did you know that there even used to be an electric rail line crossing the Rockies? (Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad)

    I agree we aren’t going to electrify everything. That’s not necessary. There is no single solution; we need a diverse portfolio to address the challenge. Joe’s post was clearly talking about passenger vehicles, not freight.

  33. Tom G says:

    There’s already a method of moving truck trailers over long distances and you don’t need the truck.
    It’s called piggy-back and it’s been in existance since the 1950’s.
    Another word for it is intermodal and it now includes containers, both sea containers and domestic cans.
    The trailer/container is loaded on a specialized railroad flatcar, or in what’s called a well car, in one city, railed to its destination city, off-loaded and delivered to the customer with a city tractor.
    Huge savings in fuel…

  34. scatter says:

    MeltyMan, don’t forget that homes may well be heated in winter or cooled in summer so the carbon savings are not clear cut. It depends on where you live and what time of year. But there are certainly benefits to be had and communications technology is sufficiently capable to make it easy to do.

  35. David B. Benson says:

    There used to be four different mainlines into the Pacific Northwest. Now there are only two.

    The U.S. has decided to build freeways rather than railroad tracks; a mistake not easily rectifiable.

    By all means move freight by rail; even with diesel power it is more efficient (although slower) than by large truck.

  36. Marty Flick says:

    We need to quit thinking of the latest advance as the ‘only’ or ‘best’ solution. Start somewhere!

    We could start by using the PHEV as a commute car. Hopefully, I won’t have to commute to Disney world – but if I did, the answer to that would be to move closer to my job, wouldn’t it?

    For leisure travel, CNG might be indicated – the infrastructure already is there – it’s cleaner than petro, and might possibly be manufactured. That’s for another tech revolution.

    The point is to be creative with our thinking – wherever ‘off-the-shelf’ is available, let’s use it. [T. Boone Picken’s idea might be a start, a stopgap until we can get a better solution online.]

    We need a mix of ideas, and this might be a good place to propose them. Good chatting with you all, and I’ll be watching progress. …

    Marty :)

  37. Earl Killian says:

    Marty, there are other proposals out there besides TBP’s. The point of a forum discussion is to debate which one should be supported. We shouldn’t go with TBP’s just because it is the most recent. The particular problem with half of TBP’s proposal is the idea of making two vehicle fleet transitions, instead of half a transition.

    Your comment about PHEVs and Disneyland implied that PHEVs have a range limitation, but they don’t. You may be thinking of pure batter EVs, and even there solutions may be coming, but a PHEV can do anything a regular car do. It just does it cheaper and with less greenhouse pollution.

  38. Michael D says:

    Does anyone know if standards for recharge points have been developed and/or considered?

    ie. what volts/amps etc do most PHEV need and do most recharge points allow for this?

    any links would be a bonus.

  39. Earl Killian says:

    Michael D, Most PHEVs are going to recharge from regular 110V outlets. There is another connector being considered as well, but it would be easy to make adapters.

    Coulomb Tech is making charging points for installing on light poles and the like.

  40. msn nickleri says:

    Your comment about PHEVs and Disneyland implied that PHEVs have a range limitation, but they don’t. You may be thinking of pure batter EVs, and even there solutions may be coming, but a PHEV can do anything a regular car do. It just does it cheaper and with less greenhouse pollution.

  41. Kobus says:

    Where did you get the idea that electricity is a fuel – alternative or otherwise? 90% of the electricity in the world is produced by burning some sort of fuel – coal,oil,gas etc. Most of the electricity which will be used to power your electric cars will come from fossil fuel power stations. How will that reduce costs and reduce energy dependence on fossil fuels. How will it reduce carbon emissions given that the extra electricity to drive these cars will have to come from extra production from these very same fossil fuel power stations? Electricity does not just come out of a plug – it comes from a fuel burning power station.

    [JR: Not a regular reader, I see.]