Sunday, September 08, 2013

More on plug-in v gas engine infrastructure

My post in August suggested that as plug-in hybrid and EV sales rise to several percentage points and more of market share, we'll start to see incremental degradation of the societal infrastructure supporting gas engines, mainly a loss of gas stations and car maintenance shops. I argued that range anxiety and "range irritation" will be an issue for gas engine vehicles in some urban areas within a decade or so.

Some pushback happened in comments over whether gas engine range anxiety will really be an issue and when it might occur. James Wimberley correctly points out that the current average age of vehicles is 11 years for a lifespan of 20 years, not 10 years as I said. Wiki says that's an increase from 9.4 year average in 2007 which suggests it may lower some as the economy improves. More importantly, wiki says "many Americans own three or more vehicles. The low marginal cost of registering and insuring additional older vehicles means many vehicles that are rarely used are still given full weight in the statistics." What we care about is more likely to be the median age of the vehicle that gets median usage. Still, I agree that it will take more than five years for that median vehicle to reflect current year market share.

On range anxiety, I did some unscientific (yes I know) checking around on Google Maps of two areas I know pretty well - South San Francisco Bay area and upstate New York. You have to get out to the more distant suburbs before gas station density really starts dropping and range anxiety seems more likely. In the exurbs, you usually travel on arterials where the gas stations are located, and people choosing to live in exurbs tend to accept lots of driving as part of the tradeoffs they're making.

Still, not every trip in exurbia is a long one that will pass by a convenient gas station. And while other people may be perfect, I certainly have let the gas tank get low enough to be more than a little anxious, even in the more urban-ish area where I live. Any decrease in gas station density could intensify that.

I had previously suggested a five mile trip just to get gas as problematic, but there's nothing magical about that number. While gas engine range irritation is probably more important, I still think range anxiety complaints will happen somewhere within a decade.

Range irritation, which I'd define as annoyance at the time spent filling up and maintaining gas engine vehicles, is the main issue. Driving even a quarter mile in heavy traffic can take time and that will get worse as station density decreases/population density increases. Drivers can plan their gas trips to avoid busy traffic, but that puts them in the same planning constraint situation that EV drivers face. When plug-ins can charge both at home and wherever they normally drive to, they're the more convenient vehicle.

In related news, plug-ins captured 6% of the August market share in Norway, presumably even more than that in Oslo. Significant financial incentives in Norway balance out the negative externalities from gas engines. Maybe Oslo will be the first place where the infrastructure favors plug-ins over gas.

In less cheerful news, Australian voters look likely to have scrapped their carbon tax on the most polluting businesses. Instead they'll have taxpayer tributes to the same businesses in return for reducing the harm they're causing to Australia and the world. While this was likely a secondary issue in the election, I think it does indicate the reason why it's helpful to make political compromises in order to get broader support for climate solutions.


Greg said...

Wouldn't logic suggest that, as a saturated market, the number of gas stations is basically proportional to the number of (mainly) gas powered cars in use? In which case, you'd have to get to 50% PHEV penetration to reduce the number of gas stations by 50% (and there'd be a time-lag too). I'm pretty sure there's more than 6 gas stations within 2 miles of my suburban home - Google says 8. So, lose half of them and it's still no big deal. I think you'd have to get considerably more rural before the loss of a few gas stations would matter that much.

Anonymous said...


If you are looking for logic, you're at the wrong place.

You must have made a wrong turn.

This is Madam Carolyn's crystal- ball-and-tarot-card-reading booth.

Brian is booth-sitting for the good Madam, who is on vacation:

"range irritation" will be an issue for gas engine vehicles in some urban areas within a decade or so....

How do I know this? It is in the cards... and besides, my balls do not lie.

Brian said...

Greg - suburbs that are sufficient low density that there's never traffic congestion, but are high enough density to have lots of gas stations will be the last places to have this problem.

OTOH, people that live in those same suburbs may work in more urban areas and eventually start finding it more inconvenient to get to a gas station at that side of their commute. If they can charge their plugins at both ends of the commute, that seems easier to me.