First of all, our venerable Muskegon Critic wrote a great diary showing that, even if the popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) took off even more rapidly than the most optimistic estimates, the electric grid could handle them without a problem. It's a good read, but as I started drafting a comment on the article to add in my own research, it started growing into a diary in its own right.
The electric grid will be able to handle millions of EVs no problem, but all those plug-in cars will provide immense benefits to the grid and many other areas of society as well. Beyond the orange squiggle lies some of the benefits I've uncovered.
First of all, we must realize that every choice is a competition among alternatives and that the relative merits of each alternative must be compared as thoroughly as possible to make the best decision. This is true in all aspects of life, but in discussing the merits of EVs, it is absolutely crucial.
With that established, let's look at the transportation options one should consider when buying a car. Now, if someone is thinking of buying a car, I would hope they would have considered whether they even need a car in the first place, or if a combination of walking, biking and public transit could meet most of their transportation needs instead. Sadly, there are too many places in the USA where one, two or even all three of these options are either extremely difficult or totally unworkable. We should work to change this and we would reap the benefits of better health through more physical activity and lower air pollution along with lower traffic.
If a car is necessary given someone's situation, a plug-in vehicle is a great option, for the buyer, for the country, or even the planet as a whole. There are plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt and Plug-In Prius that can go several miles on electric power from the grid before a gasoline engine kicks in. These make a great primary car that can take care of daily commuting and some errands around town using mostly electrons and then kick on a gasoline engine for longer trips. 100% electric vehicles like he Nissan LEAF, Tesla Model S and the Ford Focus Electric are great for daily commuting and errands, although it takes a few hours to charge them up from normal grid power, so they're not recommended for long-distance trips and very long commutes right now. However, Tesla is trying to make these constraints disappear with their battery swap and their supercharger network, although the way they're inserting proprietary technology in hopes of setting industry standards themselves is a little sketchy.
Regardless, one of the benefits that EVs provide is that they lower demand for oil exploration, drilling, transport and refining. Oil consumption in the developed world has led to geopolitical nightmares in the Middle East, human rights violations and environmental catastrophe wherever the resource curse strikes. I can write a whole other diary about how bad the Tar Sands and the Keystone crackpipe we would use to smoke it are, but it's easier just to say that, by the time crude oil gets to a refinery, a lot of damage has already been done.
Refining the oil has its own set of drawbacks, one of them being electricity consumption! If you click that link, you'll see that the USA used over 48 BILLION kWh in electricity refining oil. With that amount of electricity, you could power 16 million Nissan LEAFs each driving the US average of 12,000 miles a year! Oil refineries also use a lot of natural gas, both to provide process heat and to "upgrade" the hydrocarbons in crude oil with extra hydrogen atoms. In 2005, oil refineries used 741,444 Terajoules!!! (almost 1.21 Jiggawatts!!!) That amounts to 205.9 BILLION kWh of natural gas, or about 100 BILLION kWh when turned into electricity at the power plant. This could power ANOTHER 32 million LEAFs for a grand total of 48 million EVs that could be powered by the electricity and natural gas that the oil refining industry uses alone. As electric vehicle use increases, the demand for electricity and natural gas at oil refineries will decrease, cancelling out a large portion (perhaps 1/4 to 1/3) of the energy demand from electric vehicles. And since oil refineries emit nasty pollution in their own right, we will achieve better environmental and health outcomes along the way.
Speaking of environmental and health outcomes, vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel fuel release pollution in close proximity to people, with urban air pollution from vehicle exhaust being the worst form of the problem. Air pollution has been linked to all sorts of problems, contributing to Alzheimer’s and Autism cases while hurting our economy, jacking up our healthcare costs and killing people. Even if an electric vehicle is powered by a coal plant, that pollution is much more dispersed (generally) than vehicle exhaust by the time people tend to breathe it in and it is much easier to clean up one big source of pollution than millions of small, mobile sources of pollution like cars. And, while a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle is forever tethered to an ever-dirtier fuel supply chain as the easy, cheap and more efficiently-extracted fossil fuels are depleted, an EV can get cleaner over time as low, and no-carbon energy gets hooked up to the grid.
Electric vehicles can also help with this transition by being the key enabler for Vehicle-to-Grid arrangements. As they sit plugged in for 8, 10, 12 or even up to 23 hours a day, they can stabilize the grid and store surplus renewable energy.
While EVs might be a little expensive up-front and might not be the perfect car for everybody right now, they have manifold benefits for their owners and society as a whole. Owners can save 60% or even much more in fueling costs while the maintenance on EVs is practically nothing compared to all the wear-and-tear items on internal combustion-powered vehicles. Society has to deal with less geopolitical headaches, health problems / spending and premature deaths as more electric vehicles get on the roads. Oh yeah, and climate change is a real big problem too, but EVs can be a big part of the solution.