Have Car, Will Travel: Thanksgiving’s Energy Impact

"Gridlock"We’re one day away from Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Whether by plane, train, or—for most Americans—automobile, tens of millions of people are about to crisscross the country destined for turkey, stuffing, and a long holiday weekend of quality time spent with loved ones.

In short, it’s a massive, annual, weekend-long migration. AAA recently released its annual Thanksgiving weekend travel forecast, and the numbers are staggering. Nearly 44 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home. A full 90 percent of them (39.1 million) will do so via automobile. Meanwhile, gas prices nationwide are expected to range between $3.25 and $3.40 per gallon. Depending on how those numbers actually shake out, this year has the potential to lay claim to the highest Thanksgiving gas prices ever, topping last year’s national average of $3.32.


For many, time spent with family and close friends over the holiday is (metaphorically) priceless. But all those people moving from here to there comes with a very real energy cost. Just consider the gasoline it takes to move those 39 million Americans in their cars—and the economic and environmental impacts that go with all that fuel consumption.

Let’s make a few idealized (and conservative) assumptions:

  • Everyone carpools four people to a car (thus 39.1 million people riding in 9.8 million vehicles)
  • Each car travels the theoretical minimum of 50 miles each way (100 miles round trip, with no additional driving over the course of the long weekend)
  • Each vehicle gets the U.S. national average fuel efficiency (somewhere around 24 mpg, give or take, depending on your source).

With these rough numbers, the energy cost of Thanksgiving—as measured by the fuel it takes for the 90 percent of long-distance travelers who get to and from their destinations by car—becomes clear. The automobiles, SUVs, and other passenger vehicles shuttling holiday travelers will travel 980 million miles, burn 40.8 million gallons of gasoline, require $132.6 million to $138.7 million for fuel, and emit more than 362,000 metric tons of CO2 (based on an EPA-estimated 8,887g of CO2 per gallon of gas), the emissions equivalent of more than 72,000 cars annually.


What might an alternative energy scenario look like? Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced a new fuel efficiency standard—54.5 mpg—which automakers must meet by 2025. What would this year’s Thanksgiving travel look like under a 54.5mpg fuel efficiency scenario? Compared to the United States’ current mpg average, that doubly more efficient auto fleet would comparatively save 23 million gallons of fuel, keep more than $70 million in the pockets of consumers (in 2012 dollars and fuel prices alone, not even counting the certain increase in fuel prices by the year 2025), and reduce CO2 emissions by more than 200,000 metric tons (roughly the equivalent of pulling 40,000 automobiles off the road for an entire year).

Such improved fuel efficiency standards are just the tip of the iceberg. RMI’s Reinventing Fire offers a vision for radically transforming America’s transportation profile—including automobiles—by 2050. The auto component of that transformation would happen via a number of pathways, including integrative design, advanced materials (such as lightweight carbon fiber composites), and powertrain electrification, all of which would serve to substantially improve vehicle fitness. Ultimately, Reinventing Fire highlights the potential to reduce U.S. automotive fuel demand by an incredible 95 percent. The remaining 5 percent could be met through non-cropland biofuels.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is a celebration of bountiful abundance. A similar perspective can—one day—apply to the energy costs of travel. Two of America’s most abundant energy supplies are conservation/efficiency and renewables, such as wind and solar. When we radically improve vehicle fitness (mpg, which equates to tapping efficiency) and shift toward electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources, we invest in a future transportation system built upon abundance. Welcoming that transition, and ushering it in sooner than later, can give us something new to be thankful for. 

Highlighted Resources


Lightweighting a Key To DOE’s EV Everywhere Grand Challenge

Reinventing Fire: Transportation


President Obama Launches EV-Everywhere Challenge as Part of Energy Department’s Clean Energy Grand Challenges

Some images courtesy of Shutterstock.