January 11, 2011

On electric cars and environmental impact

On my Facebook page there is an interesting discussion going on between a couple of us around the subject of Electric Vehicles (EV's). This was triggered by an article on the BBC about a man trying to drive his electric mini from London to Edinburgh using just publicly available charge points.

To put this into context, the UK has seen a gently increase in the number of electric powered vehicles on their roads. The latest - and Car Of The Year Award winner for 2010 - is the Nissan Leaf. This is a nice, spacious family car run entirely on batteries and costing upwards of £29,000 (before taking into account the government's £5000 subsidy). But they are stymied by the fact that they can't run as far as petrol cars between top-ups and there aren't as many top-up places available.

The discussion is really coming down to two issues (which are somewhat related):
1) The range of these cars.
2) The environmental impact of them.

For the first issue the problem appears to be that the designers of the vehicle have included ALL the electrical items on the cars and linked them into a single power source. A battery might last long enough to give you a range of about 100 miles if you don't use anything else on the car. But as soon as you turn the lights on, or the radio, or the air conditioning, the windscreen wipers or anything that sucks electricity from the battery you are reducing the range of the vehicle. This means - to all intents and purposes - that you can realistically expect to get about 60 miles on one charge (depending on speed, acceleration and other variables). This is leading to something know as 'range anxiety' for potential electric car drivers. I know, for example, that when my car hits the red bar on the fuel tank I can drive conservatively for about 25 miles and still get home. But if I'm at the same stage in an electric car the range could depend on whether it's raining and dark, or if it's sunny and hot. In each case I will be using something that will increase the electrical usage and decrease the range.

Environmentally electric cars look like a no-brainer. They don't use oil and they are better for the environment. But as a friend of mine pointed out in the discussion there are a couple of mitigating factors. Electricity still needs to be generated to fill the cars. This currently comes mostly from fossil fuels and is therefore unsustainable and environmentally damaging. But furthermore the batteries in cars are made from lithium which is another unsustainable resource. With the demand for lithium increasing due to electric cars, cell phones, computers etc both the cost and the availability is going to increase dramatically.

So what can we do?

Well as my friend Peter quite rightly said 'I don't have the answer. If I did I would be a billionaire'. But I think there are a couple of things here that need to be looked at seriously

Firstly the source of the electricity. I believe that creating 100 miles worth of electricity for a car uses less fossil fuel than running 100 miles in a oil-based fuel vehicle. This is - at least - commendable. But it can't stop there. We have to be looking at much better, more efficient and cheaper sources of fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells are one possibility and Honda already have a working model on the market, the FCX Clarity. The other is to look at completely different sources of energy to create our electricity. Wave power, hydroelectric, solar and wind all come to mind. Whilst these will not replace out current electrical generation needs completely, they could produce that proportion of the electricity needed for electric vehicles thereby reducing the pollution and fossil fuel impact of cars. Nuclear power is also something to be seriously considered.

Secondly we need to be looking at the materials being used to make batteries. Lithium is currently the go-to element, but there are other more efficient (but more expensive) materials out there. Zinc-Air, Molten Salt, and Zinc Bromine. Again these are finite resources but recycling is in place to allow the key elements from these batteries to be used again.

But what is the key issue? Is it an environmental thing? For some people it is. For some people the desire the help the earth is paramount and they are willing to do whatever they can to facilitate this. For others it's a financial issue. They see the high cost of EV's and realise they can spend a lot less and get something cheaper but just as good for them AND they don't have to stop every couple of hours and recharge for half a day. But for others money isn't the issue. If the government gave everyone an electric car they would still not use it. Because it is change. And people don't like change. They don't like having to think about their journey in stages of 60 -100 mile chunks with recharges at the end of each chunk. They don't like having to sit and wait for 2 - 6 hours for their battery to recharge. They don't like having to  go out of their way to find some of the few public charging stations available in England.

But then again few people liked having the little man with the red flag prevented from walking in front of their car back at the turn of the last century.


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