A Combination of Electric Cars and Solar Energy Could Tackle Global Warming

A Combination of Electric Cars and Solar Energy Could Tackle Global Warming

By Francois Callewaert

Global warming has been identified as one of the main challenges of modern society, as it is expected to make the life of billions of people harsher. Moreover, it is likely that we will be faced with the complete depletion of fossil fuels before the end of the century.

Fortunately, a myriad of solutions have emerged in the past few decades to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and tackle the global warming issue. Among these solutions, renewable energies (solar, wind, hydro…), electric vehicles and energy efficient products (LEDs, smart buildings…) are believed to play a major role in the transition to a post-carbon world. One such solution that could help reduce our fossil fuel consumption by more than half is the combination of solar energy and electric vehicles.

First of all, global CO2 emissions come mostly from two sources: electricity generation (particularly from coal) and transportation (mostly petroleum), which are responsible for almost three quarters of CO2 emissions in the US.

Historically, coal has been widely used to produce electricity thanks to the low costs of production and large coal reserves. However, recent environmental regulations have increased these costs and, at the same time, the fast evolution of technology has decreased the cost of producing energy from natural gas and other renewable sources. In particular, solar electricity production costs have decreased by a factor of 5 between 2008 and now! As a result, solar electricity has become cheaper than coal in most of the US and is expected to be cost-competitive with natural gas by 2020.

Thanks to this revolution, solar energy generation has been doubling every two years over the past 20 years (that’s a 1000 times increase!) and represents today, 1% of the world electricity. With this extremely fast capacity increase, solar energy could produce half of the world’s electricity by 2040!

Similarly, gasoline vehicles have prevailed over electric vehicles (EV) and hybrid vehicles (HEV) in the last century due to the cheapness and convenience of gasoline and the lack of competitive alternatives. EV have actually existed for over more than a century, but have been flawed by the poor performance and high cost of batteries compared to a simple gasoline tank. However, battery technology has evolved extremely fast over the past two decades after the invention of Lithium-ion batteries, with an increase of the capacity, power and, most importantly, a decrease of price by 5 times in the last 10 years.

As a result of this revolution in battery technologies, the first generation of EVs emerged for the general public such as the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. The number of EVs in the world has exploded from virtually zero, five years ago, to almost one million today. This is just the beginning, as EVs get better and better, and it is anticipated that more than 5% of the cars sold in 2025 will be EVs.

So far, we have seen that solar energy and EVs have experienced tremendous growth over the past decades. However, there is still a giant leap to jump before these technologies can have a significant impact on the environment: solar energy should be increased by a factor of 100 and EVs by a factor of 1000!

The big challenge here is that taken individually, solar and EVs cannot have such impact. On one hand, solar energy suffers from working only during the day and being too dependent on the weather. In practice, a report from NREL estimated that solar power could only provide up to 10 to 20% of the electricity production needed. It also would not prevent the need to build conventional plants based on fossil fuels to provide energy at night. On the other hand, EVs will not allow the decrease carbon emissions if the electricity they use is produced from fossil fuels.

Fortunately, these two issues can be solved at once if solar energy and EVs are combined. The solution is to program EVs to be charged only during the day, when electricity comes from solar panels. Such an idea could be easily implemented with smart charging stations, and especially building them at the workplace. By doing so and replacing all gasoline vehicles by EVs, one could directly remove all CO2 emissions from transportations, decreasing our global emissions by 30%.

But one could even go further by storing solar energy during the day and using it at night. This will be made possible with the batteries in EVs. Indeed, the average distance traveled by a car driver is 40 miles per day. As EVs are expected to have battery capacity higher than 200 miles in the near future (e.g the Tesla Model 3 which will be available in 2017 for $35,000), three quarters of the battery would be unused every day. Instead, one could use it to store solar energy during the day and use it at night to power the house.

A simple calculation shows that if every car was an EV and half of the battery (50kWh) was used to store energy, it would be enough to store one day of the total electricity consumption. That would be enough to allow solar energy to provide 100% of the electricity in the world, thus decreasing global CO2 emissions by another 30%.

Of course the real solution to global warming and to the use of fossil fuels will take a long time and come from a combination of many more factors such as wind, hydro or energy efficiency. Nonetheless, we showed here that the combination of solar energy and electric vehicles will play a major role in the transition to a post-carbon world.

References:

http://www.lifecycleassociates.com/2015/09/03/slight-increase-american-energy-2014-carbon-emissions-unchanged/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikescott/2015/10/08/wind-and-solar-energy-technologies-eat-into-fossil-fuel-powers-business-plan/

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Utility-Scale-Solar-Reaches-Cost-Parity-With-Natural-Gas-Throughout-America

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell

http://www.powermag.com/emerging-technologies-enable-no-regrets-energy-strategy/

http://www.nrel.gov/csp/pdfs/52978.pdf

http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/a12983/35000-tesla-model-iii-coming-in-2017/

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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