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Superstorm Sandy Raises Concerns About EVs

But gasoline shortages show all motorists at risk.

by on Nov.05, 2012

Long lines of motorists waiting for gas in NJ. Photo courtesy:

Long lines of motorists snake through New Jersey shore communities still buried under the sand tossed inland by Superstorm Sandy. The scene repeats itself in New York City and its suburbs, and up along the storm-ravaged coast.  Even as the Northeast digs out from under the devastation, frustrations continue to mount over gasoline shortages that have left many motorists unable to fill up.

The problem isn’t a lack of gasoline but the power to run pumps.  Experts say there may actually now be an oversupply of fuel on ships sitting in New York Harbor and at refineries like those in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

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The events of last week underscore the potential problem Americans face after a major disaster, whether it be a superstorm, an earthquake, a tsunami or a terrorist attack that guts a region’s infrastructure.  Motorists, whatever they drive, are particularly vulnerable to the loss of electricity that can shut down filling stations all over a crowded region like New York – or Chicago, Washington, or Los Angeles, for that matter.

“The problem will go away when the power is restored, and it won’t go away if it’s not,” Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service told the Associated Press.

Much of the region struck by Superstorm Sandy has already gotten back to a semblance of normality – meaning at least the electricity is back.  At its peak, about 8.5 million customers were without power last week, according to authorities.  About 75% of those back on the grid, with the utility Public Service Electric and Gas reporting that all major refineries, notably including Exxon and Hess facilities in Elizabeth, are powered up.

Some areas remain harder hit than others, however, particularly parts of the Jersey Shore and the New York City borough of Staten Island, and could go days, perhaps weeks more without electricity.

In the meantime, NJ Governor Chris Christie has instituted alternate-day rationing determined by the last number on a motorist’s license plate.

Motorists who might already have run out of fuel will at least be able to resort to jerry cans to get a couple gallons – enough, perhaps, to make it to the nearest working pump.

But the superstorm raises concerns about the limits of electric vehicles in emergencies like the one that devastated the coast last week.

Most battery cars on the market today can run less than 100 miles — on a full charge.  Considering the massive size of Superstorm Sandy, whose wrath was felt along an estimated 800 miles of coastline, that would barely be enough to get out of harm’s way, though more than enough to at least get waterfront residents to higher ground.

In the aftermath, battery cars are potentially even more vulnerable in that there are relatively few public charging facilities, especially those offering higher voltage capabilities for quick charging.  In many cases, owners would have to find a working 110-volt outlet and wait as much as a full day to get another 100 miles of range.

And there’s no jerry can alternative for a battery car that has run out of juice on the side of a highway.

On the other hand, at least a working outlet would help, while motorists driving internal combustion vehicles have to find a service station.

Until a large network of public charging stations becomes widely available, electric vehicles could be particularly vulnerable during natural or man-made disasters. But as the lines snaking up to East Coast gas stations demonstrate, motorists may have problems whatever they’re driving.


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16 Responses to “Superstorm Sandy Raises Concerns About EVs”

  1. kcallstate says:

    Paul, the solution to your described EV problem is already here. It’s called the Chevy Volt. The Volt doesn’t care if the power’s out. The onboard gas generator makes it’s own electricity and I can drive as far as I choose. Granted I would still gas in my tank but that’s not different than other gasoline only vehicle. However, it is completely different from EVERY other mainstream electric vehicle out there. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric and the Mitsubishi MiEV are all dead in the water after their battery depletes and there is not power arund. Extended range EV’s like the Volt (which I get 160mpg with!) is the only viable option for the future of EV’s. You’re example is just another reason that proves that point. -Keith Cloutier

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      Hi, Keith,

      The Volt does have the advantage of a dual drivetrain but, at best, that adds only 30+ miles of battery-powered driving, so a plus but not a solution.

      Paul A. Eisenstein

      • ny27 says:

        I believe this is inaccurate. The Volt does not have a dual drivetrain, like the Prius. Only electric motors drive the wheels. The gas motor only generates electricity for battery storage. Also, the statement that the Volt drivetrain only adds about 30+ miles to battery powered driving is incorrect. It adds an unlimited amount of miles as long as gasoline is available. In other words, the gas motor recharges the batteries when they are low. As a result, the Volt has the same mobility as a gas powered car. It can go about 380 miles on one tank of gas.

        • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

          Hi, NY,

          This gets a little complicated and depends on how you define “dual drivetrain.” From the sense that the Chevy Volt can use power either stored in its battery or produce its own power via an I-4 motor acting as a generator it does, indeed have a dual drivetrain. Now, GM initially insisted that the wheels would ONLY ever get torque provided from the electric motors. Shortly before launch, however, the maker confirmed it would actually draw a small percentage of torque at higher highway speeds or under heavy load (ie accelerating onto a freeway) directly from the gas engine. But at no time can the Volt ever run solely from its gasoline engine alone directly turning the wheels. The primary source of torque must always be the electric motor.

          Paul A. Eisenstein

      • kcallstate says:

        I guess that depends on what problem you are trying to solve. The Volt is not limited to the maximum battery capacity range which was, I thought, your concern about EV’s in a power outage crisis, so on that narrow point you would have to agree that the Volt solves that particular problem doesn’t it? By the way, the Volt only has a single, electric drivetrain. Remember that the engine is merely a generator which is exactly what one needs when the power is out! Now if I can just figure out how to get the Volt to power my house during the next power outage!!


        • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

          Hi, Keith,

          No, ironically, the Volt gets nailed at both ends. If electricity is down in its region, it cannot charge up. And, if an electric outage has shut down the gas pumps, neither can the Volt gas up. True, it can add the range of its gasoline engine to that of the batteries but that means only another 35 or so miles and the vehicle’s combined gas/electric range is only about that of other high-mileage offerings in the same size class these days. So, yes, Volt would not be restricted in getting out of a large danger zone, as would other electrics that might have only 80 – 100 miles of range, but per the key point of the story, it would still face problems after its battery charge ran down and gas tank ran dry. It would be waiting in line for both gas and/or an electric outlet.

          Paul A. Eisenstein

          • ny27 says:

            Hi Paul,

            Thanks for pointing out that the Volt gas motor sometimes drives the wheels. I didn’t know that. In the above comment though, I think you’re presenting a positive as a negative. The Volt would have to wait in line for electricity or gas if it was out of both. But this is positive because it could go if it had access to two different fuel sources, whereas conventional cars only have one option. Also, you mentioned again that the gas motor only extends the battery range about 35 miles. The volt can go about 40 miles on battery alone. Then the gas motor kicks in and extends the range of the car to about 400 miles before gas is needed. In other words, the gas motor extends the range of the car by about 350 miles, not 35.

          • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

            I’m not ignoring your point. And the fact it can keep driving if it’s out of electricity but has gas — or vice versa — is a plus. But the battery range is minimal. If you didn’t have gas, you’d barely be able to get off Long Beach Island from the far end to the mainland side of the causeway, for example. And if you had a full tank but no battery power your range isn’t all that great compared to some other vehicles of common size. Yes, having both capabilities is a plus. But the point remains, if there’s no power in your area neither a battery car OR a gas car will do much for you. They’ll both leave you stranded.

            Paul E.

  2. zjessez says:

    The author did not offer any solutions to the gas pump issue or really delve into the possible solutions in detail.

    1.) Build more EV charging stations/ with solar powered ones at all existing gas stations. This should be a law that all gas stations have at least one EV charging station. (I foresee comments so at least this is a better law then outlawing the big gulp)

    -Regarding power to run the pumps..
    2.) Install solar panels on gas stations that can run the gas pumps or at least some of them or some minimum requirement for gas stations to have backup generators to run the pumps.

    3.) Look at wind alternative to this near the shore.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      Hi, Jesse,

      Interesting suggestions. You might want to check an Associate Press story on what’s happening with green energy, however. The feds are abandoning support for wind and solar and the business is shriveling up, so mandating back-up units at gas stations is unlikely, whether logical or not.

      Paul A. Eisenstein

      • ny27 says:

        I believe this also is incorrect. Wind and solar are the fastest growing power generation sources in the world. The business is expanding rapidly, not shriveling up. Shriveling up relates more to non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels. The wind and sun don’t shrivel up.

        Having back up power generation at gas stations so that pumps work during power outages would be easier than at many locations because the fuel already is on site. It would be useful and perhaps life saving because people would be able to get gas during power outages for their cars and back up generators at home.

        • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

          Unfortunately, in the U.S., wind and solar are, indeed, shriveling up. Here’s a link to a telling AP story:

          Paul E.

          • ny27 says:

            This is a highly complex issue. There is much public deception related to it. This article shows that wind power growth is down to 21% in 2011 from 31% in 2009.

            But that still is a much higher growth rate than all other forms of power generation, except solar.

            At 3.5 cents per kwh, wind already is cost competitive with coal in many cases.

            The article you cited contains many of the biased public deceptions one often hears from fossil fuel companies and their allies. For example, they often say wind is not cost competitive with fossil fuel. The rapid growth of wind shows that this often is not the case. Wind is growing rapidly in many places where it is not subsidized.

            However, the main public deception relates to subsidies for fossil fuels. If all of the real, actual costs of burning fossil fuels were included in prices, the cost of gasoline might be over $20 per gallon. Citizens pay most of the cost of coal, oil and gasoline through income taxes, reduced quality of life and other fees and factors. Externalized fossil fuel costs include incremental military costs in the middle east that would not be incurred if oil were not there, hundreds of thousands of cases of illness and premature death from breathing polluted air, traffic jams resulting from subsidized fuel prices, mercury contamination of fish from burning coal, damage from acid rain and climate change, tax breaks for fossil fuel production, selling fossil fuels under government land for below market prices, and many other factors.

            If subsidies on fossil fuel were removed, there would be an explosion of energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. In a real world economic system that accounts for all costs, these technologies already are extremely cost effective. The idea that they are not is an illusion and a public deception.

          • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

            The problem that this story highlights most significantly is the fact that there’s been a huge cutback in investments and subsidies for green power and it will be critical for proponents to win back support after the election. If not, a lot of start-ups and established vendors could leave the US. I’m not going to get into the debate over competitiveness of technologies here.

            Paul E.

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