There’s more to life than “sustainable mobility”

In his proposal for using low-carbon electricity for electric vehicles in Ontario, Jatin Nathwani writes, “Ontario’s [electricity] requirements vary from day to day with a peak demand of about 26,000 MW, dropping to about half that at night. Fueling cars on the grid from 10pm to 6am proves a lucrative opportunity to charge several million vehicles” (A winning formula for sustainable mobility, 30 June).

Although this apparent spare grid capacity could undoubtedly meet some of Ontario’s private transportation energy needs, it is necessary to ask whether charging electric vehicles is the best way to address the twin issues of energy security and climate change. Many vehicular journeys are unnecessary, others can be combined into a single trip, and in some cases alternative modes of transportation are available. The same cannot be of space heating—when energy is needed during the heating season, it must be supplied.

According to NRCan’s Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE), in 2005, Ontario’s passenger road transportation (small and large cars and passenger light trucks) consumed slightly over 438 petajoules of gasoline and diesel, while natural gas consumption for space heating in the residential, and commercial and institutional sectors was almost the same, at 430 petajoules. (When water heating is included, natural gas consumption rises to 555 petajoules.)

Natural gas in North America is becoming more expensive, driven in part by the growing demand for “clean” electricity, rising exploration costs, and declining reserve size. The fact that Gazprom has proposed building an LNG facility at Rabaska in Quebec—ostensibly to meet some of Ontario and Quebec’s natural gas needs—is indicative of the changes underway in North America’s natural gas market.

As natural gas supplies become less secure, many people searching for space heating alternatives for their homes or offices will turn to electricity, since in most buildings, supply is simply an outlet away. If a large number of consumers switched to electric baseboards, the results could be disastrous—increasing demand for electricity during the winter months, potentially leading to blackouts. An alternative to baseboards is storage heaters, or more commonly, electric thermal storage (ETS) units, which can be charged during the off-peak and discharged throughout the day. Ontario’s decision to re-meter the province with interval meters will allow time-of-use rate structures to encourage the uptake of ETS systems.

Since ETS units are permanently attached to the grid, they can be charged at any time by intermittent, low-carbon sources of electricity such as wind or solar. The same cannot be said for electric vehicles, as they may not be attached to the grid when intermittent energy is available. Control technology, coupled with interval meters, will allow suppliers of intermittent energy to match supply with demand.

In North America’s headlong rush to maintain its auto-centric lifestyles, it is easy to forget that what is being used to fuel our vehicles often has other uses: corn is also a food and electricity can be a source of heat.

Submitted to Globe and Mail 3 July 2008.