The future of energy is experiencing special scrutiny.  The Economist has a lead story this month.  The timing of this discourse is, of course, occasioned by the Covid-19 related plummet in energy usage.  Most of this is in the transportation sector, but even electricity usage has dropped in step with reduced industrial activity.  The sector responsible for most of the deaths associated with particulate matter (PM), biomass combustion in cookstoves, has likely been unaffected.   The poor, representing most of the affected persons, still cook their food.  Broad assertions regarding the effect of reduced energy consumption on climate change must recognize that this sector remains unaffected.

Over 85% of ambient PM is produced from combustion processes.  The sources fall into three categories: electricity production using coal, transportation, and biomass burning. In the US, coal fired electricity has experienced a sustained drop.  While emission regulations have been a factor in retiring the oldest plants, cheap natural gas has resulted in the retired coal plants not being replaced by similar units.  Shale gas, and gas associated with shale oil, have caused a sustained drop in the price of natural gas in the US to below USD 3 per million BTU.  At those prices, with an expectation of continuation of the low price regime, coal has not been able to compete.  This trend can be expected to continue and ambient PM ought to benefit.

Fuel use in transportation has plummeted during the pandemic.  Some of the behavioral changes resulting in reduction in driving and flying ought to persist.  This trend comes at a time when electric vehicles (EV’s) have reached something of tipping point.  This has resulted from an astonishing reduction in the cost of batteries from USD 1000 per kWh to a possible USD 100 in a year; all this in a scant ten years.  Consequently, electric cars are getting close to parity on price with conventional gasoline driven ones. They already are for luxury vehicles.  This is important because the American consumer is unduly influenced by the “sticker price” as opposed to life cycle costs.  Operating costs of EV’s will be lower than for the comparable conventional vehicle.  A modest family sedan will travel a mile using about 0.25 kWh.  Electricity cost is variable, but in many states nighttime prices are lower due to depressed demand, as low as 4 cents per kWh.  Even at a generous 8 cents, the fuel cost per mile is 2 cent per mile.  The same conventional car delivering 30 miles to the gallon of gasoline will cost 10 cents per mile at USD 3 per gallon.  Maintenance costs are also lower for electric vehicles. 

EV’s will result in lower ambient PM and not only because of zero tailpipe emissions.  The electricity used, if produced from coal, will certainly emit PM.  But being at a point source, capture and disposition is more feasible than at the tailpipe.  The electricity is increasingly likely to be from a renewable source.  But no matter which the source, one feature of EV’s is that the well to wheel energy usage is 65% less for EV’s than a comparable conventional vehicle.  Consider a conventional vehicle delivering 35 miles to the gallon.  An EV of the same capability will be rated at between 110 and 120 miles per gallon equivalent, as is the Chevy Bolt.  Therefore, no matter the source, an EV simply uses less energy per mile. With no change in consumer driving behavior, one could expect a net drop in PM emissions with increasing penetration of EV’s into the fleet.

As matters stand, coal fired electricity is in retreat, at least in the highest electricity consuming nations.  EV’s are increasingly nudging oil into the non-essential realm.  Two of the big three contributors to airborne particulates are headed in the right direction.  Major corporations are placing substantial bets.

British Petroleum (BP) recently announced plans for cutting back on oil production by 40% by 2030.  They also announced an intent to produce a sizeable amount of renewable electricity in the same time frame.  The announcement caused an increase in the price of their stock price.  That would not have been expected a few years ago.  About a dozen years ago BP had announced a similar intent, going so far as to state that BP stood for Beyond Petroleum.  That proved to be more rhetoric than action. Now it appears that the climate is right.  And the climate will indeed be the beneficiary.

Vikram Rao

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