North America

An Electric Car-Bike Lane Plan, for Cities like Toronto

Many Conservatives disparage electric cars and bike lanes, while many Liberals fetishize electric cars and bike lanes. The correct approach lies between: some bike lanes and some electric cars are good. Others are not.

For bike lanes, geography can be decisive. Cities like Amsterdam—which is almost entirely flat, and which has no months in which average daily highs exceed 22 degrees celsius or fall below 6 degrees celsius—are ideal for cycling. But most cities are much hillier, hotter, and colder than that. These cities need bike lanes too, but not the same type of bike lane system that Amsterdam has.

For electric cars, size and speed can be decisive. The electric cars currently being marketed to us—the Tesla S, the Nissan Leaf, etc. — are actually far too big and fast to be environmentally or economically efficient. Their batteries expend a lot of pollution during their production, do not provide enough range before needing to be either charged or swapped-out (plus, slow-charging stations, fast-charging stations, and/or battery-swapping stations are all problematic, for various environmental or economic reasons) and are too heavy and bulky to come even close to being  ideal.

This is a shame, since electric vehicles in general can be more efficient and eco-friendly than gasoline-fueled vehicles. This is (among other reasons) because they do not contribute to local air pollution, and because they receive their power from power plants, which can be several times more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines and can use energy sources other than fossil fuels.

Electric cars that are much lighter and/or slower than, for example, the Nissan Leaf do not face the same significant battery limitations that electric cars like the Leaf face. If, hypothetically, we all were to decide to buy cars that are closer in their size and speed to golf carts rather than to today’s style of North American automobile, urban areas would very likely experience a substantial economic and environmental gain as a result. The reduced speed limit of the cars would not even cause average driving speeds to drop by much during rush hour, because traffic congestion in urban areas is usually severe enough that vehicles’ average driving speeds already tend to be far below speed limits.

Of course, the goal is not to make people drive tiny cars. Apart from being illiberal, such cars would not be practical or safe on expressways and in suburban areas in which low speed limits would be limiting. The goal, rather, should be to make it safe and comfortable for drivers in urban areas to use small lightweight cars (whether privately owned or, more likely at first, car2go-style rentals), even while they sharing the road with much larger, heavier conventional cars.

Designating certain road lanes (or, better yet, entire streets or downtown cores) as slow-speed limit lanes might accomplish this. Lighter and slow electric cars could safely drive in these lanes alongside conventional vehicles.

Moreover, this could also allow for bike lane systems ideal for cities like Toronto; cities that have a lot of days that are too hot and a lot of days that are too cold/snowy/icy/ to bike comfortably or safely, especially up hills (in summer) or down hills (in winter):

Like electric vehicles, cyclists too would be able to use the slow-speed car lanes relatively safely and comfortably. This could mean three things, all of them good:

  1. the city would generally be much more bike-friendly than would otherwise be the case
  2. if you put a two-lane bike lane on one side of the street (see image below), then cyclists would have the option of either using the bike lane or using the slow-speed car lanes — in other words, cyclists would have the option of biking on the sunny side or the shaded side of the street, no matter what time of day it was. This should be very useful on hot days, when cyclists are trying to get to work without breaking a sweat
  3.  instead of having three or four winter months a year in which bike lanes are extremely underutilized, you could instead use the bike lanes during the winter as a parking lane and extra slow speed lane for some of the smaller very small cars (one-seaters or especially narrow 2-4 seaters) that would become common as a result of the slow-speed car lanes. Having a parking lane in the winter would be useful for older people who are at risk of slipping on ice and falling if they have to walk longer distances from their car to their destination.

bike lane.png

So, there it is: a plan to promote efficient electric cars, rather than inefficient ones or none at all; and a plan for having bike lanes that could be useful during hot summers as well as during cold winters.

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North America

Night Moves: The Future of Charging Electric Cars in Ontario

The Ontario government recently announced a plan to subsidize electric cars by up to $14,000 per vehicle and pay for them to be charged at night, among other things. Night-time charging is a key factor in electric vehicle ownership, as in most cases it takes several hours to charge an electric car.

This begs the question: what will the price of overnight electricity in Ontario be in the years ahead?

Today overnight electricity is cheap because most nuclear power plants in Ontario and coal plants in nearby states like Michigan cannot easily be turned off at night, in contrast to gas plants or hydropower facilities which can more easily ramp up and down their output to match real-time electricity demand. An estimated 60 percent of Ontario’s power is generated from nuclear, compared to around 15 percent in Canada as a whole and 20 percent in the US. Around 50 percent of the power in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (states that are close to Ontario) comes from coal, compared to 33 percent in the US as a whole and 10-15 percent in Canada. Ontario and the Midwest are also among the leaders in wind turbines, which do not turn off at night either, and Ontario, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are by far the top three North American producers of nuclear power.

Going forward, however, there are compelling reasons to think that this overnight surplus of electricity will no longer exist.

The first reason is fracking. In the past few years the US has seen an enormous boom in shale gas production, which has been leading much of the country to begin switching off their coal plants and replacing them with cheap natural gas. The stock prices of US coal companies have already dropped by over 90 percent since 2014, and by over 97 percent since 2011. As more gas and less coal is used to generate electricity, the price of overnight electricity is likely to spike relative to the price of daytime electricity, since gas plants tend to be far easier to shut off at night than coal plants.

This is relevant to Ontario because the biggest gas booms in the US since 2010 have been in nearby states like Pennsylvania, and because Ontario already has the extensive natural gas infrastructure required to import and distribute American gas (especially via Michigan, which has the largest gas storage capacity in the US). Indeed fracking has made gas so cheap in the region that even Ontario might look to it again as a source of energy production, instead of building new nuclear plants or wind farms.

The second reason overnight electricity prices are likely to rise is robots. Machines that combine mobility with computation are highly energy-intensive, but, unlike humans, they do not need to sleep at night or relax in the evening. Take, for example, Amazon’s robotic warehouses: they have caused the company’s night-time electricity use to rise substantially since they were introduced, given that before they came along Amazon’s warehouses were either inactive overnight or else employed human workers who ran on food (and overtime pay) instead of electricity. If and when this robotic economy finally goes mainstream, then, such demand for overnight power could be replicated at large. We should expect late-night electricity use to skyrocket: robots are no longer science-fiction.

The final reason is environmentalism. In order to keep greenhouse gas emissions down (which is, after all, the main point of subsidizing EVs), many voters are pushing for more solar panels and wind turbines to be built. Solar and wind are complementary to one another, not only because the sun often shines brightly at different times as the wind blows strongly, but also because wind farms and solar farms usually inspire non-overlapping types of NIMBY-driven political backlash. Ontario already gets 5-6 percent of its electricity from wind compared to less than one percent from solar, so it might be that going forward its solar power growth will outstrip its wind power growth. Of course, solar power will not help to bring down overnight electricity prices. Even the wind, however, tends to blow less strongly overnight than during the day – a fact that runs contrary to conventional wisdom, since the wind can usually be heard more clearly at night.

As solar, wind, and gas replace dirtier coal in the regional electricity network, there will also be environmentalist-led pressure to stop heating homes with fossil fuels and instead adopt electric-powered heaters like those used in Quebec and the Pacific Northwest. This too would be likely to cause overnight electricity prices to rise. Quebec, for example, uses electric-powered heating and so has its electricity demand peak during frigid winter nights, whereas Ontario primarily uses gas-powered heating and therefore has its electricity demand peak during hot summer days. Should Ontario or nearby US states switch over to electric heating in order to reduce carbon and methane emissions from natural gas, the region’s overnight electricity usage will rise.

The need to help support solar and wind power could lead as well to the building of more pumped-hydro facilities, which pump water uphill so that it can flow back downstream through a turbine when other power sources are in low supply, such as when solar panels are blocked by clouds or the wind is not blowing. There has been talk lately of building more pumped hydro in Ontario, in places like Niagara and Marmora, as pumped hydro is the most efficient form of electricity storage. Given that Ontario’s daytime power is not cheap (at least, not by Canadian or American standards), this water would be pumped at night. It is an energy-intensive process, however, requiring 20 percent or so more energy to pump uphill than is generated from releasing it back downhill. Thus it would lead overnight prices to rise.

In closing, any electric-vehicle policy approach that assumes that Ontario’s overnight electricity costs will remain cheap is probably a shortsighted one. Ontario’s overnight electricity costs are likely to rise substantially as a result of natural gas replacing coal, robots working slavishly every night, and the move towards cleaner sources of energy like wind power and, especially, solar power.

Without being certain of future electricity prices,  the EV subsidy plan is like a leap, or Leaf, in the dark.

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