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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 2, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

    Skepticism receding?

    Neil Briscoe

    I have developed something of a reputation as an electric car skeptic, and while it’s true that I remain somewhat skeptical of the hopes of batteries doing all our driving in the future, I’m certainly not anti-electric car. In fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed driving every single Electric Vehicle (EV) that I’ve thus far driven. It’s just that, for a majority of us, their combination of limited range (normally aroungd the 160km mark) and long recharge times (eight hours or so from a domestic socket) means that as things stand right now, battery EVs are just not a practical option for the vast majority of us.

    This is frustrating. Three years ago, in an unconscious echo of the post Chariots Of Fire Oscars domination that “The British are coming!” we were told that an electric future was imminent. Charging points were being installed, cars like the Nissan Leaf were arriving on sale and pretty soon we’d all be swooshing silently about. It hasn’t, clearly, happened and I find that immensely disappointing. I would love to go electric, to leave the old days of internal combustion behind, or at least to one side.

    Thankfully, while we have all been expressing frustration and doubts, things have been quietly moving along in the background. I spoke to Dermot McArdle from ESB eCars, which has been tasked by the Government to get electric cars up and running for Ireland. While sales of the cars have been slow thus far (just 200 in three years) the charging network has been slotting into place.

    “It’s not just something that we want to do, it’s something that we have to do” says McArdle. “The macro factors are only moving in one direction, Fossil fuel prices are increasing on almost a daily basis. As a country, we’ve also signed up to a lot of international agreements, which informs Government policy, and that policy is to move transport into a low carbon environment.

    “How do we do that? By making electric vehicles a realistic possibility for as many people as possible. Choice is a factor, and every major car manufacturer is currently working on bringing either a battery electric vehicle to the market or a plugin hybrid, and a lot of that is being driven by EU directives on carbon emissions.

    “What makes it realistic from a consumer point of view is an efficient network of recharging.”

    Nothing to disagree with there, but it has been disappointing that the roll-out of public charging points has been slower than expected. The ESB says that this has been because it has adopted a wait-and-see attitude to the final numbers of charging points needed, and is waiting for a sufficient number of electric cars to come into use so that it has some reliable data on how people will use their cars and the charging network. I made the point that perhaps the egg of a wide-ranging charging network has to come before the chicken of electric car sales, but perhaps there is some validity in the ESB’s point; there’s little point in investing in charging points if no-one is going to use them in the longer term.

    There is better news when it comes to emissions. There is a long standing argument that running an EV is pretty pointless if your electricity comes from a mucky coal-fired power station. Indeed, according to the ESB’s own figures, taking electricity from the coal station at Moneypoint and using it to charge the batteries of a current EV results, when all the sums are done, in an equivalent emissions level of 130g/km. Not very clever when a VW Golf BlueMotion diesel can get you 99g/km in current form, less when the new MkVII Golf arrives.

    But it’s not that simple. For a start, there is already significant wind power in Ireland and the ESB is already well on the way to achieving its 2020 goal of having 40% wind power. On top of that, all of the more modern electric generating plants are gas-fired, which results in an average figure of 85g/km.

    In fact, it’s even better than that. The ESB works under an emissions cap, so any additional power that it has to generate to ‘fuel’ electric vehicles has to be offset elsewhere in the network, so there is no commensurate rise in emissions. Better still, road transport has no emissions cap, so anyone who buys an EV and not a petrol or diesel car is not only removing their emissions from the road transport system, they’re not, effectively, adding to the emissions from power generation.

    Further down the line, the ESB has plans for a smart-grid system which can momentarily interrupt charging of plugged-in EVs if there is a drop-off in the power generation system (a move that saves considerable emissions and power-up time, but which has virtually no effect on charging your car – the delay amounts to seconds of charge time) and, further down the line again, to use EVs and their batteries as storage units for wind power that would otherwise disappear, unused, into the ether, even being able to draw power from plugged-in, partially charged EVs to plug a momentary gap in the grid if one of the power generating stations has a systems failure.

    Now, that’s all aspirational and somewhat in the future, and it still does leave us with the problem of EVs not being, right here, right now, practical for most of us. That will improve (Tesla can right now sell you, albeit for a steep price, a Model S saloon that can go a claimed 500km on a single charge) but potentially we need another, possibly major, breakthrough in battery technology to finally bridge the gap. The existence of such a breakthrough is far from guaranteed.

    There is though, one utterly compelling argument for buying an EV, even now when they are still compromised and expensive. According to Dermot McArdle “an EV, on our own calculations is about 10% of the running cost of an equivalent petrol car, and about 20% of a diesel car.” That is an equation that will only grow more in favour of the electric car.

    Finally, I posed McArdle the last resort question of all EV skeptics. What about hydrogen power? Why go to all the trouble to invest in EVs and charging networks when they are, potentially, the Betamax of the motoring world?

    “The hydrogen thing just doesn’t make sense” he responds. “Most hydrogen production, currently, is from fossil fuels anyway, and electrolysis, to get hydrogen from water, is only about 30% efficient. And then you have to take the hydrogen, transport it, store it, put it in a fuel pump, put it in your car and then pass it through a fuel cell which turns it back into… electricity. With an electric car charging network, everything is mostly already in place, you just have to put the posts in.”

    That’s still a big just, and major car makers such as Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and GM are all betting against McArdle and the ESB, but he has a point.

    Skpetical still? Yes, but perhaps a little more hopeful than before.

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