What will it take to run the U.S. on electricity?
All we need is a doubling or tripling of electricity production
A recent Peter Zeihan video stated that if we were to electrify the United States, we would need a lot of new power generation. I was intrigued to see how much I could quantify these statistics. I believe I have a reasonable estimate for changing to electric vehicles. I'll explain that before providing a list of additional requirements.
Conversion to EVs
This is fairly straightforward. All we need is an estimate of the number of miles driven per type of vehicle and then the number of kWh required per mile. Table 1 has all of this information.
The vehicle count is taken from the Federal Highway Administration's Table MV-1. This is data from 2021. The average miles per vehicle are likewise from the Federal Highway Administration; however, they may be found in Table VM-1. This is also data from 2021. The issue here is trucks, which can range from local delivery trucks to semis. Because the average number of miles driven varies, I used a conservative subtotal amount to arrive at the 23,596 value.
Estimating the kWh per mile was difficult. I used an estimate from Eco Cost Savings for automobiles. They went to fueleconomy.gov and looked up 231 electric automobiles to obtain the 0.3460 kWh per mile value. This was an estimate for 2022. Clean Technica provided me with a bus estimate. It is based on a 2016 estimate of 2.15 kWh per mile.
Because of their variety, trucks are once again a concern. According to PepsiCo, their Tesla Semis get 1.7 kWh per mile. Another estimate, from the researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was 1.89 kWh for delivery vehicles. I chose the lesser estimate. Finally, I had difficulty locating something suitable for motorcycles. I chose 0.0136 kWh per mile, which is an average for electric bikes. This is most certainly an underestimate, but in the end, motorcycles don't consume a lot of energy, so it doesn't matter much. Finally, recognize that Table 1 is a rough approximation.
How does this compare to existing electricity generation? Figure 1 has the answer. We currently use somewhat more than 4 trillion kWh of electricity. If all vehicles were converted to electric, we would require an additional 7 trillion kWh of electricity. Take note that the present energy usage is data from 2022, but the car data is from 2021; close enough.
Also, as seen in Figure 1, 21% of electricity generation is renewable, while another 20% is nuclear. To fulfill the present electricity needs met by fossil fuels, renewables would need to increase from 1 trillion to 3.5 trillion kWh. If we wish to electrify all vehicles and use renewable energy, their production will have to increase from roughly 1 trillion kWh to about 10.5 trillion kWh. In other words, simply increase production by 9.5 trillion kWh. Assume my rough estimate is off by a factor of two. Renewables would have to increase from 1 trillion kWh to almost 7 trillion kWh in this scenario to cover present fossil fuel energy and future car demand, or add 6 trillion kWh of production.
The amount of electricity required for trucks astonished me. I continued double-checking my work, but there are a lot of trucks driving a lot of miles. This informs me that switching to electric cars will have little impact. We should concentrate on trucks, and as a bonus, it may be easier to set up charging stations for truck fleets than for cars. Setting up charging, for example, is more difficult if someone has to park on a public roadway.
At this time, the green revolution's electricity requirements are significant, even for electric vehicles. Here are some more factors to consider with electrification:
In 2021, U.S. homes used 4.82 quadrillion BTUs of natural gas and another 0.93 quadrillion BTUs of petroleum. Figure 2 provides an overview of home energy use.
Overall, there are about 62.71 million housing units that use natural gas for heating, 5.21 million that use propane, and 4.93 million that use fuel oil. In other words, 72.24 million homes would need to be converted to electrical heating. Suppose we convert all of this to heat pumps. From Energy Sage
Based on an EnergySage analysis of a Department of Energy database, a typical heat pump in a typical home uses 5,475 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year—easily the single biggest energy-user in a typical home.
Multiply 5,475 by 72.24 million to get 395,514,000,000. So, another half a trillion kWh need to be generated. I rounded up to cover for cooking and hot water.
Commercial building and manufacturing
From EIA 2018 data we find that (table B19) there are 5.9 million commercial building in the U.S. In the sample of 4,901 buildings, 83% used a form of fossil fuel for heating. We would need to convert about 4.9 million commercial buildings, of various sizes, to eclectic heating. We’ll be generous and use the 5,474 kWh for home heat pumps to get another 26,806,178,000. This 27 billion kWh has to be a large underestimate. Beyond heating, their is manufacturing in general.
Here is an example of a new semiconductor plant to be built in Syracuse, NY. From Syracuse.com
When fully built, the complex of four chip fabs would use 640 million kilowatt-hours a month, more than enough for 1 million average New York homes.
In other words, this one plant will require about 7.7 billion kWh per year. From IBIS World (because that is what I found easily), there were 628,334 manufacturing businesses in the U.S. in 2022. I’m guessing that they all don’t use 7.7 billion kWh per year. I’m not sure how to estimate this, but we must be talking about values in the trillion kWh per year range.
At this point, I’d have to agree with Zeihan in that we need a whole lot more electricity production to run the U.S. on electricity. I’ll say doubling to tripling what we are currently generating is a fair ballpark estimate, assuming no growth in consumption. That won’t happen by 2050 to get to net zero. One more related issue
The grid will need a major upgrade. For example, New Jersey is going to get a nearly $1B power grid upgrade (11/9/2023):
Some of the standout plans in the EnergizeNJ project include:
Upgrading more than 600 miles of overhead power lines with more robust wiring that supports increased capacity and added resistance to storms
Replacing approximately 46 miles of aging underground lines with modern, more protected wiring
Upgrading 18 substations to increase overall system capacity and support additional backup power feeds that will help keep the lights on if wires or equipment on their regular line are offline
No, this isn’t for all of New Jersey. It is for 1 million customers in central and northern New Jersey. It is also expected to take five years. There are a variety of articles online about the grid, but I couldn’t find one that I thought was a good source. I’m sure there is one out there I missed by some government agency, but it is clear the grid will need a major upgrade if we want to electrify everything.
I don’t understand how anyone can think we can electrify the U.S. with renewables in a couple of decades. I’m not saying we shouldn’t move in that direction, but we should be realistic and recognize that adapting to climate change has to be part of the plan.
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The Zeihan clip
This is what got me started.
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