The hype over electric cars has been going on a long time.
Let’s set the scene, watch this clip:
In 1967, had Harold Wilson prempted Michael Gove and passed a law banning petrol and diesel cars from 1990, the country would have been immobilised when that year arrived.
So what does the governments ‘commitment’ to the same in 2040 mean; beyond creating confusion?
The quantity of active Electric Vehicle (EV) numbers are difficult to predict and forecasts vary from 1-10% of cars in the UK by 2020. Different technologies may begin to compete for different market sectors. However the Committee on Climate Change recently recommended aiming for 1.7 million EVs by 2020.(1) Given the length of time new vehicle technologies can take to become established this level of uptake by 2020 is highly unlikely
If EVs become the normally accepted mode of personal and commercial transport this would raise a number of issues for the electricity grid. Recharging will place a strain on local electricity substations, which are already close to capacity.
“It will be a challenge and a lot of investment is required: in generating capacity, strengthening the distribution grid and charging infrastructure.”
Johannes Wetzel, energy markets analyst at Wood Mackenzie.
Although some conventional cars will remain on the road, numbers of electric vehicles (EVs) could balloon to 20 million by 2040 from around 90,000 today; charging them all will require additional electricity.
Britain faces a power supply challenge in the early 2020s as old nuclear reactors come to the end of their lives and coal-fired plants are planned for closure by 2025.
Four years ago, well before the conventional car ban was raised, the government said more than £100bn in investment would be needed to ensure clean, secure electricity supplies this figure has yet to be revised to take into account the implications of the 2040 target.
Supporting millions of EVs is technically feasible, and if drivers can be educated to recharge them overnight when there is spare capacity and if a network of smart meters has been installed to allow variable pricing and if the energy generating companies can be convinced to offer variable tariffs then maybe the infrastructure costs can be minimised.
So what are the Alternatives?
Doing nothing and hoping alternative energy vehicles go away is no an option.
Fuel cell vehicles generate electricity on-board using a “clean fuel” such as hydrogen. This is a low-carbon form of transport if the hydrogen is generated using electricity from low-carbon sources. Hydrogen powered vehicles can be refuelled quickly and have an increased range, compared with battery powered EVs. Fuel cells may offer the lowest carbon option for road vehicles in the long term.
Mile for mile, running an electric car is cheaper than running a petrol car, Nissan suggests £0.02/mile if the electricity is bought off-peak, compared with £0.10/mile for petrol or diesel. But this disparity is down to tax on road fuel (67 % of the price of a litre of unleaded). If this revenue stream dries up, the government will have to find other taxes to replace this lost revenue or devise mechanisms to recover through the cost of recharging. The Institute for Fiscal Studies report of November 2016(2) gives the gross revenue generated by fuel duty at £27.6Bn
The other relevant factor here is the current low cost of electricity due to the fact that most of it is still generated from cheap fossil fuels. From an environmental point of view, a switch to electric cars only makes sense if the electricity used to power them is produced by renewable means.
In the next 23 years we have at least 4 new parliaments and it is clear that technology research into alternative energy will change dramatically over this period. Battery technology will improve but will that happen fast enough to meet the 23-year deadline? After all, engineers have been grappling with the problem for over 50 years and they have managed to improve the range compared with the 1960s prototypes, which could only manage 35 miles between charges. So by 2040 we might be able to drive 700 miles and recharge in minutes. Or will it be like nuclear fusion which has spent the past 50 years being just around the corner.
Will electric vehicles turn out to be the great hope which never quite materialises?
We just don’t know.
1 Committee on Climate Change (Jun 2010) 2nd Progress Report to Parliament
2 A Survey of the UK Tax System Updated by Thomas Pope and Tom Waters* November 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies