Thursday, July 13, 2017


So Volvo will become all-electric, and France will ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040, whilst the British government is under pressure now for all cars in Britain going electric. 

That’s enough for the world’s Greens to have a collective orgasm.

However, the concepts are so simplistically presented, anyone with half a brain should stop and consider what it means in down-to-earth, practical reality.

Matt Ridley, writing for THE TIMES, has done an admirable job of playing devil’s advocate. His recent column re-published in THE AUSTRALIAN (Tuesday, July 11, page 9) should be must reading for the public, politicians and public servants.

Finally, some public clarity on a vexing issue.

As Ridley accurately points out, the electric motor pre-dates the internal combustion engine by about a century, the concept of electric cars is not new. So, why did they fail as mass transport?

In their early years the problems were inefficient battery charging; poor charge retention, weight of batteries and cost of manufacture.

Fast forward to 2017, and Ridley suggests that congestion at charging stations would be only one obvious problem.

Recharging electric cars from the power grid raises two issues. First, pollution, which I’ll come back to – but the other urgent consideration is electricity generating potential from power stations.

The world is struggling to build enough electricity generators to provide current demand, and is already challenged by the choice of generating sources (coal, nuclear, solar, wind, wave, etc.). New power plants face all kinds of obstacles in both the public and the political sphere, as we try to work out the most cost-efficient, low-carbon way to generate base load.

Add a completely electric car park, and heating homes and offices, to the demand and it’s not hard to see why it’s such a huge problem.

Ridley says Britain’s cars travel about 650 billion kilometres a year, and even assuming the use of small electric vehicles, that would add an extra 16% to the demand on the UK power grid.

Also, if we want the power to be low-carbon, and since the UK can’t seem to decide on nuclear, and solar is in trouble in northern latitudes, then how many wind turbines might be needed to generate all the extra demand? Ridley says it’s about 10,000 onshore and 5,000 offshore, requiring (in Britain) a subsidy of at least £2 billion, more than double the size of the UK’s existing wind farm estates!

Next we come to the pollution problem. If you recharge electric cars from a coal-fired power grid, you simply transpose pollution caused by petrol/diesel, to more pollution created by higher demand on the grid. The net effect is about the same level of pollution.

Finally, as Ridley points out, at least 40% of road transport fuel is used by trucks and other heavy vehicles (not cars), so electrifying cars still leaves a big chunk of petrol/diesel pollution to worry about.

His initial conclusion: electric cars might be a great technology, but almost trivial as a practical policy development on climate change.

Also, governments must not answer calls from electric car producers to incentivize their use; and they should give up thinking about legislating their use – regardless of noise from the Greens.

(Question: Why do carmakers want governments to subsidize the making and selling of electric cars? Simple. They are bloody expensive to make, and there is precious little demand for them!)

Also whilst lithium ion is the current focus of battery production, there is loads of research right now aimed at designing better batteries. There’s a lot of revolutionary thinking being applied to the challenge, so we also need to avoid signing up to Elon Musk’s enormous commitment to locking the world into supporting lithium batteries.

One final point on which I completely agree with Ridley, and that’s the carbon footprint generated (cradle-to-the-grave) of making electric vehicles, versus simple petrol/diesel cars.

That’s because the carbon-intensive manufacturing resources required, and the exotic materials used in battery manufacture, plus the exotic materials in electric cars themselves accounts for half of the cradle-to-the-grave emissions of electric cars.

Petrol/diesel cars are cheaper to build, cheaper to run, last longer, do not need expensive and polluting battery replacements, and generate a lower carbon footprint from manufacture through to final recycling. Yes, it's more carbon-intensive to recycle electric cars!

There may be/will be a number of outcomes in terms of alternative powering of passenger cars, because there is no single 'silver bullet' answer - perhaps with the exception of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles.

That would be a totally 'clean' source, providing we can find a way to make masses of hydrogen gas using electricity generated from renewable sources - and even that's challenging on a global scale.

As Ridley sums up his excellent, and objective analysis; let the market decide what will work, don’t let the state screw it up.

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