Thursday, 3 January 2019
I had an electric car once. The range was pathetic... the cord only stretched about 50 feet. An oldie but nevertheless still illustrative of a truism, that although electric cars may be the future, it will be a future quite different from the one advertised. There may yet be inductive charging while in motion, kerbside hook-ups every fifteen feet and the opportunity for some to charge up for free at work, but the electricity has to be reliably generated somewhere.
And about that reliability thing: until we get 24/7 sunshine, or constant, not-too-weak/not-too-strong wind we have to generate that electricity by, you guessed it, fossil fuel, because much of the world has turned against nuclear. So, the real power behind electric cars is not clean, fresh, free-to-harvest renewables, but good old coal and gas. Add in the cost of mining all that toxic cadmium and other expensive, exotic metals and it is almost certain you can show that cough for cough, electric cars are more environmentally harmful than diesel
But long before we get to the stage when environmentalists begin to campaign against electric cars we need to spend a whole bunch of cash just to make electron-propelled transport viable. Where do you live and where do you work? Do you have a nice driveway where you can recharge? Or, like far more of the population, do you need to park across the road, in the next street, or just in a different spot every evening because, muh, congestion?
Who is going to build all the power stations needed? It has been widely reported that China builds a new coal-fired power station about every three seconds, yet in the UK we get one new nuclear plant every fifty years. And how is all that electricity to be distributed; who is going to build the infrastructure? You guessed it, not us. The Germans and the French already seem to own our power market anyway, so hey, let’s throw more of our capital away in pursuit of what still seems, to me, to be an improbable dream.
Why the push for all-electric transport then? Well, obviously it is whatever form of climate change we are trying to reverse this week. And if energy usage is the bogeyman, why increase it? Turning fossil fuel into motive power, heat, light, etc is more effective if you cut out the middle man of costly (to build, maintain, manage and bill for) energy networks which merely increase complexity. This introduces efficiency losses at each stage of the process: extraction, transport, conversion , distribution, etc and adds administrative costs as the bureaucracy of the systems involved each take their slice.
Drax power station in South Yorkshire converted to the ‘carbon neutral’ wonder fuel known as biomass some years ago. Not only is this more expensive, but it is ultimately more polluting, especially when you take into account the supply chains and deforestation involved in the base fuel. Drax is built pretty much on top of a massive source of coal, which it used to burn. If the Chinese and the Germans are allowed to get away with coal-fired, why do we have to pay for what they produce from afar when we have it right here?
Faced with rising costs, British consumers of electricity have been economising and their adoption of more efficient devices, low energy lighting and a bit of common sense is paying dividends. The electric car might be a shiny carrot of a pseudo-incentive, but we have always responded quicker to a beating and the big stick of electricity tariffs has been pushing our usage down for years. It was reported this morning (BBC World Service news) that we are now using less electricity in the UK than in the eighties and that our thrift has been more influential in this than the combined ‘contribution’ of both wind and solar power.
Plug into a nearby taxpayer's wallet and she's ready to go...
So, the experts’ solution to our future energy needs is to increase our demand for electricity? And to do this they will add extra taxes into your electricity bills? Doesn’t this sound rather like the sort of things a drug baron might do - increase dependency, push up the price? Are those in control really a part of the solution at all, or rather the largest part of the problem? By all means buy an electric runabout today, but suggest your kids look into coal, oil and gas for future careers... just in case.