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Private car ownership is ridiculously wasteful

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Energy Transition

Here’s a question: how big is the entire power plant fleet in your country compared to the fleet of vehicles? Craig Morris investigated the matter for Germany. Before you read on, take a guess: which one is bigger?

Two out of three cars would disappear from this picture if we switched to car-sharing (Photo by De-okin, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Two out of three cars would disappear from this picture if we switched to car-sharing (Photo by De-okin, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Germany’s private car fleet is some 40 times bigger than its entire conventional power fleet: 4,300 GW vs. 107 GW. And while these power plants run at around half of their rated capacity over the year, cars are only used on average an hour a day – and their motors are vastly overpowered for the tasks they generally perform.

A capacity factor (CF) reflects how much energy a unit produces relative to how much it could if running full-blast. The German power plant fleet runs at around half capacity (48%), and that number is even dropping because wind and solar are offsetting conventional power faster than plants close.

Critics of renewables say this trend is wasteful, but less fossil and nuclear power is the goal of the Energiewende, not some unintended, undesirable outcome.

If you want to criticize wastefulness, private car ownership is clearly a low-hanging fruit. Private cars are currently only used for around one hour a day. And they have vastly oversized engines; the average in Germany is around 128 horsepower (in German). We use a small fraction of that capacity to creep through our cities at an average of 30 km/h.

People don’t buy cars for everyday purposes. They buy them for outlying needs. We thus choose big engines, say, to haul heavy stuffeven if we rarely do so.

Families buy station wagons (as I, ahem, know from personal experience…) for those bimonthly family trips with luggage, but then the cars are used on a daily basis for something else: driving one parent to work alone.

Admittedly, comparing cars and power plants is a classic case of apples and oranges. Cars are power plants aren’t even used for the same thing; no one is suggesting that private cars running on diesel or gasoline should be used to generate electricity.

On the other hand, the CF of these cars is much lower than the 4% shown above – that’s just the one hour a day those cars are used. But even then, those engines are not running at full capacity; people rarely put the pedal to the metal. In reality, the capacity factor of privately owned cars is probably below one percent. It’s ludicrous.

So what’s the answer?

Lots of my readers are probably thinking, Craig, I can’t do without my car. I get that. Not everyone has good public transport, and in places like Berlin (a pretty car-friendly city, if you ask me) taking a car can be more convenient than taking a bus or tram.

Private car ownership is the main problem. A recent study by Germany’s Environmental Agency (UBA) found that German cities could do away with two thirds of cars if the entire fleet were shared. That change along would bring the fleet’s collective motor size down to 1,400 GW, “only” some 14 times greater than the current conventional power fleet in Germany.

And everyone would ideally be able to pick the car they need for each trip, so we could downsize lots of motors, improving efficiency even further. (That’s the problem with Tesla’s “ludicrous mode” (video): the cars still have oversized engines. But at least we can agree it’s ludicrous.)

If the shared car fleet were also electric, even greater advances would be possible. We’d no longer be comparing apples and oranges: these cars would be connected to power plants.

They would eventually run on excess wind and solar power (which Germany doesn’t yet have), and while stationary (so most of the time) shared EVs could help stabilize the grid by providing ancillary services.

By switching to a fleet of shared electric cars, we could increase our resource efficiency massively, even as we provide solar and wind space to grow further. We would also dramatically reduce the number of cars clogging up our streets. I’m not talking about traffic jams, but the excessive number of cars parked on our streets 23 hours a day.

Increasingly, Germans are becoming aware of the free ride we give privately owned cars. I close this article with a wonderful video (unfortunately, only in German) from Deutsche Welle. The narrator is taking back her street so it can be used by people. She argues that everyone pays for free parking spaces through taxes, so everyone should get to use them, not just car owners. So shared fleets of EVs it is!

Source: Energy Transition. Reproduced with permission.

  

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  • Tom

    *95 kW in real units

  • RobertO

    Hi all, given that shared owenship will become the norm this will also provide jobs. If you drive a dirty car then you will report it and it may auto drive back to a base station to be cleaned and serviced if required.

  • Brunel

    Build cycleways! Build one from Jolimont Station to Richmond Station.

    Build them under the electricity pylon network.

    Convert a lot of old residential streets into one way roads and use the redundant lane for building a cycleway.

    • Joe

      Hello Brunie. I live in Sydney so I am guessing you live in Melbourne. How far apart are Jolimont and Richmond? What are cycleways like in general in Melbourne? In Sydneny City the Mayor Clover Moore cops heaps of flak for wanting to expand city centre cycleways. The car rules the roads here.

      • Brunel

        You know the MCG? Jolimont Station is the nearest station to the MCG. I encourage you to look up Jolimont Station on Google Maps.

        MCG is on the southern edge of a park and Jolimont Station is on the northern edge of that park! It is a bit of a walk to get from one to the other – so a cycleway would help.

        At the south eastern edge of that park is Richmond station – one of the busiest stations in Vic.

        And if one wants to go from Richmond Station to Jolimont station, one has to take a train into the city and back out again! Because the 2 stations are no on the same railway line.

        As for the question regarding cycleways, there are very few cycleways for commuting in MEL. Most of the ones that exist are for recreational use.

  • Joe

    I don’t own a car and don’t have a drivers licence but I still get around just fine on my trusty Malvern Star Bicycle for local trips and on Public Transport for longer trips. I try my best to be transport eco-friendly. And as I peer around me on my travels I see all those single occupant / driver only vehicles on the road…the very ones that complain about traffic congestion and long travel times. Yes, the complainers are the very architects of their own ill. And then I read in my local newspaper today in the letters page, a writer whingeing about cyclists and posing the question that cyclists should be banned during peak periods. The logic presumably is to free up the road space taken by bicycles to allow more cars onto the road. Brilliant and progressive thinking NOT. But then again when you have a NSW government that is addicted to tollway and motorway building those car driving punters want it all to themselves and their whingeing of traffic congestion and long travel times can continue on. The last time I checked it was car crashes, car breakdowns, traffic light controlled intersections and the increasing numbers of cars that causes long travel times. Bicycles are not the problem.

  • Craig Morris
    • Brunel

      To combat this, they should make off-peak bus travel, free.

  • John McKeon

    I remember reading criticisms of the private car from the 70s and the 90s. I’m very much in agreement with those essays of long ago. They are still completely relevant now. Craig’s article here is a brilliant complement and brings us right up to date with the energy and climate context.