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Forecourts – What does the EV movement mean?

March 9, 2020
Forecourts – What does the EV movement mean?

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 pre-empted Michael Gove and passed a law banning petrol and diesel cars from 1990, had that happened the entire British Isle's would have come to a standstill.

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 distinct 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 commonly accepted model of personal and commercial transport, this would raise several 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 much 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's 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 general 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, educating drivers to recharge them overnight when there is spare capacity using a network of smart meters has will allow variable pricing. 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 not an option. Fuel cell vehicles generate electricity onboard using a "clean fuel" such as hydrogen. Fuel Cells are a low-carbon form of transport only when the hydrogen produced uses a from low-carbon source. 

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 or mile, running an electric car is cheaper than running a petrol car, Nissan suggests £0.02/mile the electricity is bought off-peak, compared with £0.10/mile for petrol or diesel. 

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 income generated by fuel duty at £27.6Bn.

Another relevant factor is that the current low cost of electricity relies predominantly on energy from cheap fossil fuels. From an environmental point of view, a switch to electric cars only makes sense if the energy used to power them comes from renewable sources. 

In the next 23 years, we have at least four new parliaments, and 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 lead 35 miles between charges. 

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 just around the corner? 

Will electric vehicles turn out to be a great hope which never quite materialises? We don't know.

Sources:
* Committee on Climate Change
(Jun 2010) 2nd  Progress
Report to Parliament

** A Survey of the UK Tax System Updated by Thomas Pope and
Tom Waters* November 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies