On Tuesday morning I attended a breakfast briefing sponsored by Eurelectric on the Commission proposal on the deployment of electric infrastructure (actually the full title runs to 21 words, but I thought you’d be happy if I abbreviated it). We had speakers from the sponsor, from the car industry, and so on, and there was much discussion of the need for interoperability (a pretty obvious desideratum, I’d have thought) and of targets for electric infrastructure development, with the industry calling (no great surprise, this) for mandatory targets for member states on the availability of charging points.
I was very happy to hear a call from my good friend Anna Rosbach, a Danish MEP, for regulators to stand back and allow the market, and consumer choice, to guide the development of the industry.
But I had some points of my own. It seems to me that the critical point, which they scarcely mentioned, was the development of battery technology. Right now, it’s very difficult to get anywhere near the sort of battery charge you’d need to deliver the same sort of range as a petrol or diesel car. We hear about “range anxiety” – the fear of running out of charge on the motorway, far from home, and far from a charging point. Indeed one of the speakers’ slides showed a cartoon where the salesman was telling the punter “This electric car is ideal for the man who works close to home”.
What’s more, drivers today expect windscreen wipers. And headlights. The EU is mandating day-time driving lights. Drivers want air-con and/or heating (I was unkind enough to point out that for those who fear global warming, air-con was ever more critical). And radio and GPS. All these devices use power and reduce the range still further.
The batteries are a major part of the cost of an electric car, and may not last the full lifetime of the car. Replacement is very expensive.
Then there’s charging time. I fill up my car in two minutes. For electric cars, even the top-whack high-powered recharging points take around half an hour, while a domestic supply can take six hours – an overnight job.
I don’t believe that electric cars will come into their own, at least until we have lighter, longer-lasting batteries that carry several times more charge than today’s batteries. They will come, but meantime (as with solar PV) we are spending large sums on deploying technology which is relatively inefficient and may soon become obsolete. Let’s do the development first, and the deployment later.
There’s great excitement about the way that a large fleet of electric vehicles could soak up “spare” electricity from intermittent renewable generation. But as a driver, I don’t want a text message telling me to re-charge now because the wind is blowing. And if most people are recharging at home overnight, then solar PV won’t help a great deal.
Of course electric cars produce no emissions in use, but as others at the briefing pointed out, while much of our electricity is produced by fossil fuels (and coal use in Europe is currently increasing), the electric car system is still producing emissions. I’ve seen studies suggesting that on our current mix of generation, electric cars are much the same as a modern, efficient small diesel in terms of total emissions.
Electric cars are touted as cheap to run. But I pointed out that when I fill up my car today, around £50 of the bill goes straight to the government in tax and duty. But as soon as Finance Minsters find that the up-take of electric vehicles is making a significant dent in petrol/diesel revenues, they’re going to devise new ways of taxing electric vehicles.
I’d be happy to consider an electric car. But only when it can offer similar performance; similar range (with air-con etc); and a comparable charging time, to a conventional car. There’s still a way to go.