Blog: Dave LeggettElectric cars – a bug that won't go away

Dave Leggett | 19 March 2010

I don't want to come over all curmudgeonly. I like the look of the Nissan Leaf. It sounds like a genuine contender: an EV that will do 100 miles on a full charge and is a regular car rather than a freak, even if it ends up being pretty expensive to buy - like all electric cars probably will be in relation to fossil-fuel burning equivalents.

But the reporter I heard on the radio this week had a very good point that the man from Nissan wasn't able to easily bat to the boundary. What about the power generation that makes the electricity that comes through the socket? Zero emission vehicle, the journalist snorted, it's plainly not is it? In fact, he said, going in for the kill, it's actually a coal-fired car. I can't quite remember what the man from Nissan replied, but the 'coal-fired car' remark stuck.

I make no claim to offer easy answers here and this underlying problem – CO2 and other emissions in electricity power generation – sounds like a very knotty one indeed. Renewable sources of power generation are generally expensive compared with burning gas and coal. You could cover the North Sea with 10,000 300ft electricity generating wind turbines and they would generate enough power to keep the lights on in Scunthorpe for precisely no time at all if there was no wind. Even if the wind blows it is still a relatively expensive way to generate power because of the sheer numbers of the things you need to set up and maintain. Nuclear power is pretty attractive on economic grounds but comes with its own set of issues and won't be taking up the slack anytime soon because of the time it takes to approve and build nuclear power stations.

Paying more for cleaner eco-friendly electricity is the rub. Yes, people will happily tell you that wind turbines are marvellous (as long as they don't spoil the view), but if you tell them that their electricity bill may have to double or triple, perhaps they're not quite so happy. Wave and solar are also not cheap renewables to scale up. If we want cleaner energy for our electric vehicles, it's going to cost.

Okay, you say, we don't like it but we will pay more for this cleaner energy. That's commendably high minded but, alas, in the real world, we probably won't. We won't because no political party that is serious about getting into power would put 'much, much higher electricity bills for all' in its manifesto.

To effectively drive something like this you'd probably need to have an authoritarian government that could just force it through and also play around with the market mechanism to fudge the impact on its economy (potentially very useful with big infrastructure investments). China? They ought to be thinking about it. Electric vehicles could be a competitive lead for them. Small EVs are quite well suited to the country's land use/density pattern in its big coastal conurbations (China's cars typically travel short distances and they certainly don't have 'road trip' culture). China could – on paper - potentially make a leap and gain a global competitive edge if it invests big in renewable energy sources and electric vehicles at this still relatively early stage in its automotive sector's development.

Alternatively, I hear you say, can't the energy hungry Chinese just carry on ignoring the rest of the world on CO2 and carry on as they are? Maybe, but they do seem to have realised that their rapid economic growth is creating difficulties for them in terms of sustainability and air quality. What's in it for China is key. If they can see a global competitive edge that also reduces their need to import oil, maybe Beijing would go down such a path.  

Meanwhile, I fear we will be looking at coal/gas-fired cars that are also called electric ZEVs for a some time to come.

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