Electrifying Everything: Farmers

Both Dave and I were struggling for breath as we hiked across Abra Huacahuasijasa, a 15,200 ft mountain pass overlooking the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We were an unlikely pair — a farmer from western Illinois and a techie from Washington state. The two of us met a few days earlier when we both joined a hiking adventure in Peru. And here we were, experiencing Peru, and sharing details of our lives as we hiked through this magnificent landscape.

Over dinner I learned that his parents had bought their family farm in the 1960’s. The farm they purchased had been 100 acres of mixed use farm land, with both crops and livestock. In the intervening decades Dave and his brother had taken their parents little farm and expanded it to 10,000 acres. Both Dave and his brother were college educated, one with a degree in agricultural science and the other in finance. They had used their educations to expand the family farm into a substantial business.

Today, that farm produces mostly corn and most of the corn they produce is converted into ethanol. The two brothers had doubled down on corn during the ethanol boom of the early 2000’s. They bought up neighboring farms as they became available, invested in equipment to modernize the operation, and used sophisticated trading strategies on futures markets to ensure a steady stream of income, even during poor producing seasons.

Corn is the largest feed grain crop in the United States today. Close to 40% is used for ethanol production, primarily as a fuel additive.

We know that the move to electric vehicles will impact the oil industry. But how many of us are also aware of the potential impact on the farming sector? In the United States, the ethanol industry generates nearly $30B annually in revenues, and supports almost 70,000 jobs across rural America.

Let’s turn to history to understand the potential impact.

At the turn of the 20th century, historians estimate that there were 8.5 million horses in America — one horse for every 5 people. A substantial amount of American agricultural output was devoted to feeding these mainstays of “modern transportation”.

The post WW1 agricultural boom had encouraged farmers to expand to feed foreign markets as Europe rebuilt after the war. However, the bottom fell out of that market in the 1920s just as the rise of the automobile crushed local feed markets. American farmers were wiped out by the perfect storm of the transition to the automobile, the retirement of the horse, and the drought of the 1930s that became known as the Great Depression.

Texas tenant farmer, Marysville CA, 1929. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Over the next two decades, the demand for corn is likely to see a steep decline. Extreme weather due to global warming may also impact agriculture, just as it did during the 1930s.

We may not experience anything like the Great Depression. However, as we move to electrify everything, which we must, let’s also plan for the inevitable impacts it will bring.


Electrifying Everything: the EV Charging Network

The UK automobile industry wants to see 2.3 million publicly available electric car chargers installed in that country by 2030. 2030 is the magic date, because that is the year the UK will end the sale of gasoline / diesel powered vehicles. So an electric charging infrastructure will need to be in place.

2.3 million seems like a lot of chargers, doesn’t it? For comparison purposes, as of 2019 the UK had just over 8,300 filling stations. Even if you suppose that each filling station has 8 pumps, and that recharging an electric vehicle will take 4x longer than refilling a gasoline vehicle, you still only end up with about 256,000 public charge points needed.

The truth is that we have no idea how many chargers are actually needed. In this (now dated) EV charging behavior study 8,300 EV drivers were tracked over three years, and 6 million charge events. The data showed that over 80% of charging was performed at home, even when public chargers were made widely available. This is a completely different behavior to filling a car with gasoline. After all, with gasoline there is no option to fill at home!

Similar circumstances, 1900

In the year 1900 New York City had a population of 100,000 horses on the streets which produced 2.5 million pounds of manure per day that had to be constantly removed. The tonnes of dried and pulverized manure attracted a steady population of disease carrying pests, not to mention the ever present layer of manure stuck to shoes.

Over 40 horses also died each day, and these had to be removed as well. And finally, feeding and stabling 100,000 horses was, in itself, a massive logistics problem.

By 1912, automobiles outnumbered horses on the streets of New York, and by 1917 the last horse car was retired. And with that retirement, the industry that housed, fed, used, and cleaned-up after the horses also faded into history. Disease rates fell, air and water quality improved, carriage houses became first garages, and then later prime Manhattan real estate.

Today’s disruption

We don’t yet understand the consequences of electrifying everything. But we do know that broadly adopted technologies, like the horse and buggy and then the automobile, inevitably create infrastructure to support them. History has also taught us that the infrastructure to support one wave of innovation may not be required in the next.

Widespread adoption of electric automobiles will impact fueling stations, the businesses attached to those stations like restaurants, corner stores, and repair shops, and many others. It will likely drive the cost of electricity higher, at least temporarily, as generation capacity catches up. The adoption of electric vehicles will also drive urban planning / zoning as homes will need to be upgraded to have suitable service to accommodate the extra power draw, and will also need to have suitable high voltage service installed in garages. Electrifying everything will create opportunities, but also eliminate other business types.

And that brings us back to the UK auto industries 2.3 million chargers. The number of chargers needed is, in the words of the recently deceased Donald Rumsfeld, a “known unknown”. We don’t know how many chargers will actually be needed, but it’s going to be a lot. 2.3 million still seems excessive, but who really knows today?

What we can’t see yet are the unknown unknowns. Time will reveal them to us, as well as the opportunities.


Happy Canada Day

Happy Canada Day, to my friends and family north of the 49th! In honor of the day, let’s dig into some Canadian climate news.

Yesterday marked the passing into law of the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, which (among many things) gives the Canadian Paris-accord commitments the force of law. It has attracted both plaudits and criticism. Ecojustice climate program director Alan Andrews applauded the frequency of reporting, and the framework itself, for example. However Marc Lee from the Center for Policy Alternatives complained that the idea of “net-zero” has too many loopholes. Neither are wrong. It’s an important step forward.

One outcome of the new Net-Zero Emissions act is that Canada is banning the sale of new gasoline and diesel powered cars and light-duty trucks by 2035. Meanwhile, amidst the heat of the last few days, the shortage of charge stations is being acutely felt as people embark on summer road-trip vacations. That won’t be for long though. EV stations are getting built out nationwide, and in fact, just last week Parkland Canada (owner and operator of BC’s “On the Run” gas-station convenience stores) announced they would be augmenting their BC stations with up to 100 new DC fast chargers. Expect more of this, everywhere — not just Canada.

Presumably the current heat (Lytton BC, 49.6C / 121.1F on Tuesday) has been causing the skeptics to rethink their positions on climate change, as 911 calls have spiked. The Province of British Columbia has reported 486 ‘sudden and unexpected’ deaths since last Friday, and is attributing those to the sudden and extreme heat. Back to “normal” for Canada Day though. It’ll be toasty on the prairies (36C in Calgary, 32C in Winnipeg), a balmy 23C in Vancouver, 24C with thunder storms in Toronto, and similar in the maritimes.

Happy Canada Day, friends!


GREET your vehicle?

Most people know that the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle, in use, is lower than that of an internal combustion vehicle. Except in the rare case that the electricity used by the vehicle is all generated from coal-fired stations, all of the literature confirms this. But what about the emissions impact of manufacturing an all-electric vehicle compared to an internal combustion engine? Well, that turned out to be a bit of a rabbit hole.

The first thing to know is that neither the automobile industry, nor the research models themselves, report data on emissions solely created during manufacture. Argonne Labs (part of the US Dept of Energy), has a comprehensive model called GREET (The Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies Model) which seems to be the gold standard for all research at this point. GREET has been in development since at least 1999, and models everything to do with vehicular transport. It specifically separates the world into a fuel-cycle model, and a vehicle-cycle model, and what we’re after is the vehicle-cycle, which includes everything from raw materials sourcing, to manufacture, end-of-life, and recycling if applicable.

There are two challenges with GREET.

  1. The output is a “levelized” model. What this means is that it produces a number which is emissions generated per distance travelled. Even though the emissions we are interested in are generated during manufacture, GREET apportions them over the expected life of the vehicle. It tries to answer the macro question of vehicle emissions, rather than helping us to understand the manufacturing emissions cost.
  2. The model itself is incredibly detailed. Although it contains a (large) database of assumptions for all kinds of vehicle types, these will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. It cannot know, for example, where one manufacturer sources electricity versus another. Only the individual corporations will know that.

GREET is a useful framework. It is being maintained actively by Argonne National Labs and was most recently updated in 2020. Researchers have published papers which claim to use the models, but also (necessarily) make gross assumptions about sources of materials and fuels. The independent research, therefore, can’t tell us much either.

Some of the manufacturers themselves do appear to use the framework. For example, if you read Ford’s 2020 CDP disclosures you will find that they reference the GREET 2019 model in their calculation of Scope 3 up-stream emissions footprint. They simply do not report the results for individual vehicles, but rather report on emissions in aggregate. However, GM and Fiat-Chrysler‘s filings show that they use completely different methodologies at this point, at least for disclosure.

For me, this is an unsatisfying answer. It does illustrate, however, the complexity of analyzing scope 3 emissions, and the challenge that lies ahead in understanding the true emissions associated with products we purchase. It also begs for a consistent methodology to be used across industries.