Thursday, July 2, 2009

Leave the oil in the ground, drive electric with the savings

100 mile trips x million on 0.1% of 2008 oil production
You can leave the oil in the ground and drive in electric vehicles 15% of the distance the gas guzzlers would have gone just on the saved energy that refineries would have used to extract the petrol and diesel from that oil.

With many thanks to one reader, some corrections have been made to the figures in this article. Please accept my apologies for the error.

What these numbers mean is that the long tailpipe argument - that EV's just move their emissions to the power stations - is put to the lie.

It also means that claims EV take up by the public would result in mass over-subscription of power generation capacity are also not supported.

Read on.

As the USA shows its world beating credentials by making billions of dollars available for a range of climate friendly initiatives, inevitably the conservatives are coming back more loudly with complaints that the green spending spree is a "new boondoggle".

I've never really been sure what a boondoggle is. But Mr Carney writing in the Washington Examiner echoes the sentiments of plenty of other better dead than red types, when he compares the recent funding initiatives for battery technologies by the Obama administration to the dreadful corn ethanol initiatives of the previous administration. Lithium, necessary for battery technology being produced in a country like Bolivia has all the McCarthy-ists reaching for their propaganda manuals.

The Obama governments Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program serves up billions of dollars in funding, 5.9 billion for example going to Ford for its new initiatives which include Electric Vehicle (EV) research, as well producing more efficient traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles.

If Mr Carney really wants a boondoggle, he only has to look back at the previous government grants to the big auto companies to make more efficient cars: money which those automakers cynically frittered away without only to arrive today at a financial crisis, and with rising fuel prices, and their caps in hands again.

Like many who are reaching for the handbrake on the clean vehicle charge, Carney is quoting the recent Government Accountability Office's report on Plug-in hybrid usage in the Federal Fleet. The executive summary of the report says in part
For plug-ins to realize their full potential, electricity would need to be generated from lower emission fuels such as nuclear and renewable energy, rather than the fossil fuels - coal and natural gas used most often to generate electricity today.
Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Its the same old FUD that's been going around for some time now.

As we already know, in answer to the GAO report and other "long tailpipe" arguments, the fact is that just replacing ICE vehicles with plug-in Hybrids without changing any of the electricity production would realize a saving of 27% in pollutants. And in California, where a cleaner mix of electricity production is used the figure is 40%.

But the biggest argument against the GAO report and other clean car naysayers is this fact: if you just leave the oil in the ground, your electric car has already done 15% of the journey for free, just on the energy saved by not running the refinery.

Add in the costs either side, of extracting and shipping the crude to the refinery, and then trucking it across the country in tankers - figures that are much more difficult to obtain - then the

Put it another way: that electric power which the naysayers claim electric cars would chew up, causing extra pollution would actually come for free - and actually even more save on pollution - just because the refineries are not pumping out so much of Chevron and Texaco's favourite money-spinner.

I first saw this in a ground breaking article by Doug Korthof. (Note that I now think Mr Korthof's claims are a bit strong, based on the numbers I have been able to produce, but I think the idea is still valid - but you have to include the costs either side of the refinery, just the refinery itself is not enough).

I just had to check the claims he makes for myself. I contacted the US Department of Energy for their take on it, and Paul Hesse of the Energy Information Administration got back to me with references to some of the DOE's figures.

According to the figures in 2008 oil refineries in the USA purchased 42,682 million kWh of electricity.

Another major energy cost is 710,500 million cubic feet of natural gas, which assuming only 50% generation efficiencies is worth another 108,642 million kWh.

Coal is also used - 43,000 Tons (US), which at a typically quoted figure of 2.5MWh/ton electricity generation rate is good for 107 million kWh.

And we'll also include the steam purchased 98,769 million pounds. Assuming 0.3kWh energy content per pound and conversion efficiency of 60% (modern steam turbines are pretty good): 19,600 million kWh.

That's a total of 171, 031 million kWh of electricity.

That is a hell of a lot of electricity being used by oil refineries.

Now that power went to produce 5,119 million barrels of petroleum and oil products.

Lets imagine that green citizens of the USA buy up the electric vehicles that the Obama initiatives are funding, and that 0.1% of the production capacity of USA refineries is saved as a result.

Just imagine how good it would be if 5.12 million barrels of petroleum and oil products don't have to be produced, and 0.1% of energy costs at refineries is saved as a result.

What could that 0.1% produce?

The answer is - according to the DOE figures (their diagram left) that one 44 gallon barrel produces around 19.15 gallons of gasoline for ICE cars, and around 9.21 gallons of diesel fuel.

The gasoline - around 98 million gallons of it from the 5.12 million barrels - would make for 24 million trips of 100 miles in internal combustion engined cars, and another 16 million trips of 100 miles in diesel vehicles - that's assuming an average of 25mpg EPA mileage for the cars and 35mpg EPA mileage for the diesels.

But since the 5.12 million barrels of production didn't happen, and the USA saved that money - the refineries also saved the energy costs involved 151.3 million kWh worth.

Turns out that is enough to do 6.1 million 100 mile trips in an electric vehicle, like a Tesla, which uses just 28kWh to do 100 miles on EPA figures. See my bar chart at the top of this article for a graphical representation of these figures.

What that means is that if 40 people took their fossil fuel powered vehicles off the road, 6 of them could travel for free just on the power saved by not running the refineries.

The other 34 people would just be travelling at the 27% pollution saving, and at a fraction of the cost to the hip pocket compared to the fossil fuel powered vehicles.

These same figures work for Australia too, and for other countries, although here we have slightly better average fuel consumption in our vehicles, and less nuclear power stations, so the figures are a little different - but the general message is just the same.

Now I'm sure there's some play in my figures - for example critics might say there's line loss in the transmission of the electricity, and there are extra products in the barrel of oil, such as aviation gas.

But I haven't yet counted the costs of extracting and shipping the crude oil, or the cost of trucking of refined petroleum to gas stations.

Petro-politics and the energy security implications are difficult to evaluate, but the costs of wars and military protection for oil shipping also should be factored into these numbers.

I'll say it just one more time in case it didn't stick first up: leave the oil in the ground, put the petro-dollars back into education or something useful, and the power saved by winding back production at the refineries will run 15% of your EV's.

When you add the other costs, the figure is probably close to 100%. Anyway - its got to be better than the damage we're doing now, and the only way to know how much better for sure it is to start making the changes.

Every way you look at it, EV's are a much better choice for the world - its time for the oil men and their cronies to say uncle - the game is over guys, its been a great century for you.

Now its time to join the 21st century, stop burning fossils and join the technical revolution.


  1. 2 problems.

    One- your second last paragraph- as if the oil companies are going to quit. They know the end is coming and they are hanging on for dear life. All each person has to do is hold on until they leave the company. First priority- get paid, second priority keep company going. There is no environmental concern, or even forward planning. Let the future company employees cope with the too big issues.
    Secondly- what are you doing writing this at 5am!! :-)
    Nice graphs, btw.

  2. I contacted Tim Carney, columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of the piece "Are Plug-in cars the new Ethanol. He responds:

    "Nobody can deny that drivers will eventually have to move off of oil, and nobody can fairly conclude that plug-ins or lithium ion batteries will be a flop. But a headlong rush toward wide use of technology that has only barely been tested is foolhardy.

    Politicians are always looking for The Big Solution, and corporate lobbyists are always peddling one snake oil or another. Today, The Big Solution is the plug-in car, favored by electric car makers, lithium producers, and power companies that run on coal. Skepticism is warranted.

    Let the free market--or even local subsidies--help us find our replacement for petroleum."

  3. I am a great fan of BEV and PHEV technology and have been following the story for some time. I was Googling around trying to verify the figures in Doug Korthof's article (that you link to) and came across your post.

    It seems you have misplaced a decimal point in one of your calculations:

    151,300,000(kWh)/28(100 mile, 28kWh trips)=5.4 million (trips), not 54 million.
    Is this correct, or am I missing something?

    I am also having trouble verifying Doug's figure of 140 kWh of electric and natural gas to refine a barrel of oil. According to the DOE tables you link to:

    151,324,000,000(kWh combined electric & nat. gas equiv.)/5,119,100,000(barrels)=29.5 kwh/bbl

    I think the total energy used to produce a given amount of motor fuel (find, extract, transport, refine, transport again) might well power a BEV further than an ICE vehicle burning the fuel, but the refining numbers alone don't add up.

    Disclaimer: I am not that great at math, and certainly not an experienced researcher. If I have made an error, or misread your calculations, I apologize in advance.


  4. Hi Frank, Thanks heaps for spotting my error.

    For my illustrative example of reducing refinery production by 0.1% I'd managed to that figure based on a 1% calculation I'd made originally.

    I've revised the figures, adding in calculations for the power equivalents from the coal and steam as well.

    The resulting figure is not as impressive but better for being correct. :-)

    I still believe that the message of the article stands - that the arguments commonly used against EV usage are not valid. By the time you add the 27% figure for emissions savings based on the mix of power generation in the USA on average, to the savings at the refinery your "long tailpipe" emissions are a fraction of those of a gas guzzler.

    And that's before you do anything to try to clean up power generation.

    Not to mention the fact that having cleaner air in our cities, by our schools and playgrounds just has to be a better thing.

    Thanks again for reading, and for picking up the boo boo.

  5. You don't include COGENERATION!! By only looking at the electric purchased by refineries, you omit the huge amount of electric that many refineries generate themselves.

    The DOE estimates that refineries are 88% efficient; that means that my assumption of 8% to 12% was very conservative, too low.
    A while ago I published a piece about how the energy used to extract and refine gasoline is no less than about 8 to 12% of the total contained in a barrel of oil; thus, an easy calculation shows that the 12% (about 150 kWh) would take an EV1 up to 900 miles, about the same as the REST of the barrel (40, counting all 44 gallons of "refined products" as burnable, which is also generous) would take the average oil-fired car (800 miles at our fleet average of 20 mpg).

    Well, I was just going on figures supplied by the Calfornia CEC; it turns out that most refineries use co-generation, so that a lot of their electric use is hidden from statistical analysis. But overall refinery efficiency is only 88%, not even counting all the energy spent on pumping, exploring, extracting and hauling oil products, the cost of oil wars and oil diplomacy, oil spills, oil pollution and oil-related health problems.

  6. Hi Doug, thanks for this great information. It is really hard to get any facts out of the slew of data, and the refinery operators themselves don't make it easy. I did contact an Australian refinery operator when doing research for this article but go no response.

    My figures above give an amount of 33kWh of electricity per 44 gallon barrel bought in (producing 19.2 gallons of petroleum shipped out) based on information I could find.

    This data: - and - gives info about net and gross power usage, and the difference then is co-gen, according to a DOE officer that I contacted. I see figures for 2002 of 51,750 MkW/h demand, 35,478 MkW/h purchased, making for 16,276 MkW/h generated via co-gen in that year. If that is right, then refineries are generating around 30% of their own electricity requirements.

    And all that power could be going to EV's which are going to go much further than on those kWh's than the fossil fuel burners.

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Hi, thanks for leaving your thoughtful on-topic comment!