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Electric vehicles, the future or another failed dream?

Electric vehicles

 

The Electric Vehicle era has been gathering (slow) pace for a few years now, with Governments across the world setting dates when the fossil fuel burning vehicle era will supposedly be at an end. And this movement is slowly but surely picking up speed, the latest figures show that there are over 5.6 million electric vehicles worldwide, with China being the market leaders. Electric vehicles currently make up only 3% (1 in 250) of car sales worldwide. By 2025 this will reach 10%, growing to 28% in 2030 and 58% by 2040. Conversely, they will only account for less than 33% of all the vehicles on the road.

 

These numbers sound fine, and the ethics of reducing pollution are obviously very much a necessity. However, although I can see other countries across the world making a success of such a transition, the physical makeup of the British Isles, and its industrial past, will make it very difficult for it to work within the proposed timescales.

 

A lot of people are sceptical of the benefits of electric vehicles based initially on being able to charge them. If you have a drive, this is not as much of a concern, as you can trickle charge your electric vehicle overnight. However, if you are both an owner of a house (or flat) with no drive (around 40% of the current housing stock), you are reliant on public charge points, either in garages or other places, such as supermarkets. In fact, public charge points outnumber petrol stations in the UK (there are 8,471 charging sites across the UK as opposed to 8,400 petrol stations, although, obviously, the petrol stations can service many more fossil fuel vehicles compared to electric vehicles).

 

So how does that massive slice of the population charge their electric vehicles? Currently, the infrastructure for supplying charging to these potential users is just not in place. In some areas, lampposts and other street furniture have been converted to support charging points (Coventry, Buckinghamshire and parts of London), but this has been extremely limited in take up by councils who are basically cash strapped. So, your only option would be either going to a public charging centre, queuing, and spending the time necessary to maintain a working charge, or run a charging cable across pavements to your car, provided obviously that you could actually park your car outside your house. I’ve already seen places where charging cables have been crossing pavements, in some cases covered by, and weighed down with, strips of heavy plastic. There are obvious dangers in this, especially to anyone with a pram or in a wheelchair, and pedestrians, who all may trip and fall over these cables. A possibility for the ambulance chasing community to have yet another outlet for their ‘blame and claim’ market. Or a much more predictable rise in thefts of charging cables, and EBay having its own section for onward sales of such acquired hardware.

 

However, there may be some (dim) light on the horizon, with the government announcing it is pumping nearly £40m into improving the infrastructure and to develop new technologies such as wireless charging panels and pop-up chargers built into the pavement. This may be once again phantom money promised by a government who have history of such unfollowed through promises, or money awarded to ‘friends’ of the Tory government as seen when PPE contracts were awarded. And even if this money did arrive in its entirety and actually spent on what it was intended for, how far would it go? How much would it cost to put an electric charging point in your home? Some of this money is already available, as the government provides a grant of £500 towards an installation of a charging point. A basic charging unit can cost around £700 currently (faster charging units cost around £1,500) but the price of installation can vary depending on how far the charging point is from the mains supply. Even if you don’t install a charging unit, you can still charge your car from your mains supply using the kit provided by your car manufacturer, but it will charge more slowly.

 

I think that perhaps a more foresighted government might have taken a long-term view when the project to install fibre cabling to support broadband wasn’t seen as an opportunity to route electrical cable through the same trench, and as well as installing connection points for broadband outside every home, they could also have added charging points for electric vehicles. It’s not a difficult leap in forward planning, but as with most things these days, the ability to look ahead seems to escape those in power.

Finally, a few comments and concerns on the ‘greenness’ and sustainability of electrical vehicles. The main concerns are surrounding producing the extra electricity needed for replacing the current estimated 32 million cars in the UK (31 million of them are still petrol or diesel powered), and also what to do with the vehicle batteries once they become inefficient or scrapped.

Can we produce enough electricity to support everyone having an electric car? In the absence of a current infrastructure to support such a massive deployment, over time I have no doubt that power production can and will be grown. However, even with a significant increase in solar and wind power generation without doubt there will need to be new nuclear plants built to support the massive extra demand of electric vehicles, but also to replace our current ageing nuclear and fossil fuel power stations. Are we simply swapping one form of pollution for another? I guess it’s a straight choice between global warming and nuclear pollution of waste storage areas for thousands of years in the future.

 

And even if we have the capacity to produce the amount of electricity necessary, will we be able to cope with peak charging times when usage will likely rocket up. Maybe drivers could be incentivised to charge their vehicle at non-peak times or maybe the use of technologies that only draw electricity from the grid at low demand periods. Otherwise, if the technology doesn’t become available soon, we may see power cuts, restrictions and prioritising of supplies to essential services.

 

Also, the cost of energy is currently rocketing. It may be at present electric vehicles will seem to be a cheap alternative to petrol and diesel, but that can change overnight, and we might see those of a lower income priced out of a competitive market, with, eventually, no alternatives. Will public transport improve to cope? Has it ever gotten any better for years? Maybe the introduction of a subscription for charging your vehicle, where you pay one fee and get access to charging points everywhere, because if there is no agreement between suppliers, you may find it difficult to find a public charging station, and, unlike with petrol or diesel engines, you may not be able to ‘fill up’ in competing charging stations if you are travelling around.

To manage the cost, you could look at models. With these, you’ll pay a monthly or annual fee for access and this can work out cheaper per charge than paying as and when you use the charging point – especially if you’re using the same ones regularly. If the network provides unlimited charging for a set subscription free, this may prove very cost effective in the long run. There may be free charging points at the moment, but do you honestly think these will still exist once money can be made from them?

 

As for the batteries in the vehicles, there needs to be a plan in place for their disposal or even reuse once they are beyond their useful age. Currently, the battery degrades after around 10 years and must be replaced. Undoubtedly technology will bring along better, longer lasting technologies to extend their lifetimes, but even with an initial swathe of 32 million batteries, in the UK alone, what will happen to them? Under EU regulations it is currently illegal for vehicle batteries to be incinerated or sent to landfill. However, the UK currently has no specialist facilities which can commercially separate the metals in the battery for reuse and any old batteries are exported to a European country which does have specialist recycling facilities. Once there, the batteries are then incinerated (more pollution?) and approximately half of each battery can be recycled, but it still leaves a very large amount of waste that will need disposal.

 

However, there may be alternatives, such as reusing the batteries for less demanding usages other than to power an electric vehicle. However, they can be still used to store, and supply, electricity, and could be used in places such as stadiums to power back up lighting systems where the demand on the batteries is not as large. Again, because electric vehicle technology is in its infancy, it is difficult to predict what systems could be put in place to create a holistic system. As a further example, old batteries could be used to power the process of producing new ones,

 

Electric vehicles, pollution reduction, stopping slash and burn deforestation, landfill reduction, recycling, all these and more are things that need addressing now, not later, and I’m sure there are much more intelligent people than I already thinking about such solutions, but they do need to think faster, because time is passing rapidly, and there may be a lack of second chances coming our way.

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