Electric cars still await the next generation


Analysis:If we fail to see it then it cannot be for a lack of trying on the part of campaigners. The apparent effects of climate change are clear for all to see. Changes in weather patterns, more frequent outbursts of severe weather and the steady shrinking of global ice caps and glaciers.

If anyone still doubts the effects of anthropogenic climate change – the change caused by humans – then perhaps we should just heed the words of no less a figure than Stephen Hawking, who has compared the seriousness of the climate situation to that of nuclear weapons when it comes to securing our future on this planet.

Private car use is seen as Public Enemy No 1 by environmental campaigners and that’s why we’re all now paying Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) and motor tax on the basis of the carbon emissions of our cars.

It’s also why there has been such a blaze of publicity (good and bad) about electric vehicles recently.

Clearly, the car maker that can crack the conundrum of making a usable, desirable car that emits no exhaust gases will make a sales killing.

“It’s not just something that we want to do: it’s something that we have to do,” says Dermot McArdle of ESB eCars.

“The macro factors are moving in one direction only. 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 inform 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 plug-in 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.”

The ESB is crucial to the development of electric cars in Ireland, and the company’s carbon emissions level will be one of the deciding factors in whether or not it’s worth making the switch from fossil fuels to electrons.

The ESB’s average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per kilowatt-hour (kWh) generated during 2011 (figures for 2012 are not yet available) was 452.3g/kWh. Based on an average electric vehicle (EV) battery capacity of 24kWh and potential range of 160-180km per charge, this equates to about 65g per kilometre driven.

This is expected to drop closer to 50g by 2020 as additional renewable generating capacity, mostly from wind farms, comes on stream.

By comparison, the car with the lowest emissions currently available is the Toyota Yaris hybrid, which emits 79g/km of CO2.

In a comparison calculated by McArdle, a 24kWh EV charged on night-rate electricity would cost €2.20 for a full charge, equating to 1.3 cent per kilometre driven. At peak rates the cost would be €4.50, or 2.7 cent per kilometre.

A conventional car – in this case a Renault Fluence – would cost 14.2 cent per kilometre on the urban cycle for a petrol model, 8.6 cent for the diesel version.

“Of course, that’s not to forget reduced maintenance costs, lower insurance costs and, thanks to recent budget changes, an even lower motor tax rate for EVs,” says McArdle.

The ESB’s figures assume the wind power component of the system is working efficiently, something that is not always the case, although electric cars offer a potential storage solution for excess wind power generated, especially at night.

There is also the question of the additional demand on power generation created by any major switchover to electric cars.

With a generating system still primarily dependent on fossil fuels, if we all bought electric cars surely we’d just be shunting our emissions up the chain to power stations that use fossil fuels?

Yes and no. The ESB currently works under an emissions cap, which means any extra demand on the generating system must be offset.

So, theoretically, no matter how many of us purchase and run electric cars, that extra charging demand on the power plants won’t lead to a rise in generation emissions but will lead to a reduction of emissions from transport. Potentially it’s a win-win situation.

“Predicting carbon prices is tricky but a figure of about €50 a tonne by 2020 would be a reasonable one,” says McArdle.

“So if we reached 250,000 EVs by then, as a country we would be saving over €30 million per year on carbon costs, not to mention other savings in generation, by increasing the night-time demand curve and thereby keeping generating stations on load, and also utilising wind energy that might otherwise go to waste.”

That’s a lot of EVs to have on the system by then and, with carbon credit prices currently hovering around €8 per tonne, that’s a massive rise in the cost of credit in just seven years. Added to which is the potential extra cost for car buyers.

The Government acted swiftly to adjust the motor tax and VRT bands when it saw more of us were buying low-emissions vehicles, so don’t think they wouldn’t do the same to electric cars if sales rise to significant levels. That €120 a year motor tax band won’t stay around for long. Nor will the €5,000 grant towards the purchase of an EV.

Carbon emissions and offsets will be of limited direct relevance to people if electric cars don’t become more affordable, however.

This seems to be happening at last. The Nissan Leaf, a European Car of the Year winner, was launched on to the market at a cost of almost €30,000, up against conventionally-engined Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf models costing closer to €20,000.

The Leaf had its average charge range extended from 160km to 175km and its price cut to €25,595. Likewise, the price of Renault’s electric Fluence has fallen to €21,080, though it comes with an €80 monthly battery lease cost.

And the thorny issue of range at last appears to be coming closer to being solved. While the majority of EVs on the market struggle to break the 200km barrier, the recently launched Tesla Model S saloon can go almost 450km on a charge. It’s an expensive, exclusive sport saloon but the technology from such cars almost always trickles down to more conventional and affordable cars.

So, despite an NUI Galway survey that indicated 86 per cent of us are concerned about the environment, it appears the fate of the EV has changed little recently: it remains desirable technology hampered by doubts, costs and limited range.

However, EVs are more affordable than they were even a year ago, their range is creeping up (with Teslas leaping up) and their full-cycle emissions (including power generation) are still ahead of the best conventional cars (for resale values we’ll just have to wait and see).

EVs still have a number of significant goals to achieve, but at least they are closer than time last year.

The technology is improving, and if EV purchase prices can be lowered, and concerns over vehicle range and the pollution from power plants allayed, perhaps then we’ll have a genuine electric revolution.

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