In the wake of destruction Hurricane Harvey has brought on Southeast Texas, we’re seeing a common sight after disasters: long lines for gasoline. In surrounding areas which weren’t even hit by the hurricane itself, such as San Antonio, Austin and Dallas, there have been extremely long lines at gas stations, due to increased demand driven by reports of refinery shutdowns on the Gulf Coast. The demand has also been a reaction to recent rises in gas prices, with many customers stockpiling gasoline in anticipation of further rising prices in the near future.
This brings up an important point: in contrast to what many people may think would be the case, in practice electric cars tend to be more resilient to natural disasters than gas cars do.
A common question to EV owners is “what if the power goes out?”, but it’s important to remember that gas stations also don’t work when the power is out, and we have myriad examples of natural (and manmade) disasters causing disruption in the gasoline supply chain. This complicated web of distribution works fine on a day-to-day basis, but when something goes wrong it can affect an entire region or even the whole nation (as Harvey is predicted to raise gas prices nationwide).
The same is true of electricity, it too can be disrupted. But gasoline availability is dependent on both of these supply chains working properly, whereas electricity doesn’t need gasoline to function (very few locations generate electricity through burning oil). Further, electricity generation can be and is more decentralized than gasoline production, with a variety of power sources for generation and the possibility of creating your own electricity directly (e.g. through home solar panels).
There hasn’t been any rationing so far after Harvey, but once the city of Houston starts coming back online, it’s entirely possible that there will be. Right now much of the city is still flooded, though electricity is gradually being restored to customers in the area. This also means some gas stations are opening up, but people aren’t driving much yet due to the destruction. As evacuees and shelter-goers return home and people start using the roads, it seems likely that Houston gas stations will be strained.
We saw this in Hurricane Sandy – the roads, electricity and gasoline were all out during the storm and immediately after, but when things started coming back online, it was power first, then, sporadically, gas stations.
When gas stations started opening they were swamped with long lines, causing affected areas to implement rationing – with cars only allowed to fill up on certain days of the week. In that storm, even in the early days of EV charging infrastructure, some EV owners found they had an easier time charging than getting gasoline.
To be fair, there are some benefits to gasoline in an emergency situation. It’s very energy dense, which means you can store a lot more energy in a gallon of gasoline than in the same volume of batteries, which means it’s more portable and easier to store (in the short term at least – gas does “go bad” over time). So in the event of an emergency like this, especially if that emergency is predicted a few days ahead of time, it’s possible to go fill up cars or a gas canister ahead of time to have the energy on hand after the disaster hits. But this is not unique to gas cars – EVs can fill up their batteries beforehand too, and don’t have to worry about lines at the gas station from other people who had the same idea.
Furthermore, if you do “save up” some extra gasoline prior to disaster, an EV can be charged from a gasoline generator, but also from any other source of electricity. This is not true of gas cars – they can fill with gas, but not with anything else. So if you have access to solar, wind, geothermal, natural gas, a hamster on a wheel, etc., an EV can charge from it with the right equipment.
And we can’t ignore that the burning of fossil fuels makes disasters like this worse. As sea levels rise and water warms, storm events get bigger, more common, and more destructive. A world where cleaner transportation reigns would have fewer extreme weather events, which would mean less time and money spent in recovery.
In the wake of horrible natural disasters like this, it’s important that we do our best to learn from them and become better-prepared for future disasters. The faster we move away from using fossil fuels for transportation, the fewer extreme weather events we’ll have and the more prepared we will be for them.