Many car-owners are, like me, looking to change their vehicle from one powered only by petrol or diesel. But, when we look in detail at what is available to buy, it is worth noting carefully the pros and cons. In this article I cover four principal types of electric cars and hybrids now available:
These vehicles can run only on batteries needing charging points – available with modest government grants (for now) to aid their installation on homeowners’ driveways, should they have such an off-street space. Anyone living on a street of terraced houses, or an apartment block will struggle to lay charging cables to their vehicles.
The South of England is blessed with more private and public charging points than elsewhere in the UK, the highest concentration being in Central London and parts of Surrey and Kent – but not nearly enough for everyone wanting to drive electric, not least because so few homes in urban areas have driveways or off-street parking where chargers can be installed. Laying cables from their homes across or above pavements to their cars is illegal. Therefore those without home charging are dependent on public chargers which are expensive to use – with VAT at 20% added to the unit cost of power (assuming the chargers are in working order and many are not, anecdotally).
There is currently only one public charging point nationally for every 36 electrically powered vehicles, some being “fast chargers” providing up to an 80% charge in about 45 minutes. However, the queues for these can be long, some do not work at all, and a number have been installed on motorway service areas but are not connected to the National Grid due to a concern about insufficiency of power to supply these charging points. Instances of frustrated and aggressive drivers demanding charging but delayed by those ahead of them in the queue needing time to recharge are reportedly more frequent.
The initial cost of the vehicle has long been an issue as even a small hatchback can cost almost double the equivalent petrol-powered car. Latest data from the retail car industry indicates that residual values can rapidly drop by up to 50% amid concerns over range and battery life. Cars solely powered by batteries may need to have their exhausted batteries replaced after six or eight years of use at a cost of several thousand pounds. Not much is published about where or how these “consumables” will be handled or disposed of.
These cars weigh much more than their fossil-fuel equivalents, so much so that some multi storey car parks are considering (or are already) banning these cars to ground floor spaces due to concerns about a large increase in weight on the upper floors.
These vehicles are quiet, only generating sound from their tyres on the tarmac, which has led to some manufacturers adding optional engine or exhaust sounds to their cars to alert pedestrians to their proximity.
Public charging normally requires an “app”. Many do not appear to work easily if at all, leaving all-electric cars stranded. We witnessed this recently on a drive through France. We parked next to a hotel’s charger space which was occupied by a brand new fully electric Porsche Taycan (list price £110,000+) and watched the owner wrestle with his iPhone to “app” his way to a much-needed electrical charge to take his family of four onwards to wherever. He asked for help from the hotel management whose shoulder shrugging indicated that they did not know how this charging thing worked. Ultimately a call to an emergency roadside assistance service was the only solution several hours later, this after a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Calais Eurotunnel. Hardly an encouraging start to a touring holiday.
Toyota led the way some years ago with their pear-shaped Prius hatchback. A car which could run on fossil fuels and a plug-in electric charge and soon became a common sight (and still is a favourite among UBER and other minicab drivers). Many car manufacturers have followed with improved battery capacities and therefore also range of travel, this being a concern for those wanting to travel more than 150 or so miles (or even kilometres) on an electric charge (of perhaps more than 12 hours).
The oldest of these are approaching the end of their useful lives and will either need to be retrofitted with new batteries or scrapped as their second-hand values are barely more than scrap. What’s not immediately apparent is how the defunct batteries will be disposed of in an environmentally sympathetic way or whether their mineral contents can be safely and cleanly recycled.
MHEVs (Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicles)
These are vehicles which have two motors – one is fossil-fuel powered; the other is a large capacity battery. The aim is to reduce fossil fuel dependency, especially for short runs such as local shopping and school runs as the battery power can cope with around 30 miles (48 kms) or so of stop/start traffic (and they are well suited to the increasing adoption of 20 mph/32 kph in built-up urban areas).
The fossil fuel powered engine generates electrical power which is fed to the battery powered engine to maintain its charge. The claim is that cars powered this way can cruise on longer motorway journeys using less fossil fuel than they previously did as the electric motor supplements the main fossil fuelled power source (we can attest to this having recently traded in an eight-year-old petrol-only car for a similar sized and powered two-year-old MHEV and we have recorded a 35% reduction in petrol consumption).
The battery power MHEVs generate is internal. They do not depend on plug-in chargers and place no burden on the National Grid.
Petrol and Diesel Vehicles
Much has been said and written quite rightly about the harmful particulate emissions from older diesel vehicles. One must only stand on a busy road to see the filthy black smoke expelled by older diesels (quite apart from the noise pollution caused by the cacophony of their internal and infernal combustion motors) although thankfully less so these days as more stringent MOT emission tests lead to scrappage.
Similarly, poorly serviced petrol vehicles can easily be failed at MOT due to faulty catalytic converters and bad tuning.
But, properly serviced and thoroughly checked by annual MOTs, petrol cars are relatively much cleaner than in recent decades but, of course, still pump out emissions which initiatives such as ULEZ and other road schemes (such as Congestion Charging) aim to diminish.
What Next for The Big Turn ON?
It was announced this week that power outages were unlikely this coming winter due to increased battery storage and a more stable supply from the National Grid. It can only be awaited to see if this proves to be the case. However, if the hoped-for take up of electric-only cars were to be taken up soon, this may prove to be an over-optimistic prediction in winters to come.
The Green lobby may well welcome the lesser use of fossil fuel-powered cars as indeed should anyone concerned with rising carbon emissions and climate change. However, it should be remembered that contemporary society demands individual and collective mobility. Vehicle production necessitates vast quantities of raw materials, much of which are not easily recyclable or if they need fossil-fuelled processors to recycle them and therefore carbon generating energy. Batteries necessitate excavations in rain forests or in other crop lands, often in impoverished nations, to mine essential (and finite) inputs such as lithium.
There appears to be no integrated approach or “thinking in the round”. Yes, net zero carbon is a necessity. Yes, reliance on fossil fuels is necessary for now. Yes, renewables should (and are beginning to) play a vital part in supplying the nation’s need for reliable power. Infrastructure, security of supply and the environmental impact all have to be in the planning and funding calculations. Progress to maintain efficient, clean energy must be better addressed than by the short-termism promoted by some politicians and anti-fossil fuel activists. A thoughtful, balanced, and comprehensive medium-term international plan for a cleaner environment to protect all our earthly species is arguably needed but who is politically tenacious and brave enough to champion this?