Electric cars in the slow lane

Sustainable electrification of the UK’s car and van fleet is crucial to the Government’s low-carbon strategy but despite accelerating technical progress, it still has a long way to go. Jon Herbert looks at the revolution that is not picking up speed fast enough.

Some gear changes take longer than others … or don’t even involve gears at all. Abandoning a full tank for a full battery is a leap of faith that most drivers have yet to make. High showroom prices are said to be one barrier, even though electric cars are three times more fuel-efficient than their internal combustion engine counterparts.

Why is electric car and van uptake important to the UK now? Two parts of the answer are that under ideal conditions electric vehicles can make a vital contribution to decarbonising Britain, while also helping to improve local air quality near highways, byways and motorways.


Exhaust pipe carbon measurements give an indication of comparative environmental performance. Figures for electric cars charged on average UK mains electricity (circa 500gCO2/kWh) show emissions of 100gCO2/km in comparison to those typical from a small petrol engine car of 130gCO2/km.

However, with small petrol cars, a 30% allowance for corrections and upstream fuel production emissions is added. This means that average lifecycle carbon emissions for cars currently in manufacture are actually 170gCO2/km. When calculated out, this indicates a lifecycle carbon emissions reduction of some 40% for electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles also gain from regenerative braking, in which kinetic energy is returned to the battery with a fuel-efficiency improvement of up to 20%.

Where they lose out is in regulated emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matters (PMs). These increase for electric cars using mains electricity. However, because power stations are generally away from urban areas, their regulated emissions tend to be more dilute when compared to the exhausts of petrol and diesel vehicles.

There are other ultra-low emission options for green motorists. These include biofuel and hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles. However, their sustainable credentials depend on how biofuel crops are grown or hydrogen is produced on an industrial scale.

But the road ahead for electric cars is not clear: there are several key bridges to cross. The first is that they do not suit everyone’s travel profile. For example, long journeys are still a challenge. Having said that, huge year-on-year technical leaps are extending the distance capacity of electric vehicles per single battery charge. In parallel, technology is also shortening unavoidable recharging times involved in venturing beyond the range of a one fully-charged battery.

This is an important factor in encouraging manufacturers to invest the large sums needed to develop and bring practical vehicles to the marketplace. It is also vital in urging drivers to trust in battery-power for their shorter community and commuting trips.

Taking the worry out of charging up

To alleviate driver “range-anxiety”, a low-carbon orientated country of the kind the UK hopes to become must develop a national network of rapid recharging points in which electric motorists know for sure that they can plan long cross-country trips without the niggling fear of running out of watts. (Unlike petrol or diesel, it is not possible to hike to the nearest garage and return with a convenient can of electricity.)

Sophisticated apps mean that drivers can now plan effective journeys. However, more investment is needed to develop a power point grid that doesn’t leave drivers stranded at odd times in odd places. One provider is Ecotricity. The company is committed to developing an “electric highway” of convenient stations between London and Edinburgh that can deliver an 80% charge in just 20 minutes.

In his first budget statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced £390 million for low-emission and autonomous (driverless) vehicle design. He also unveiled a 100% first-year capital allowance for the installation of charging infrastructure.

On a wider European stage, four primary car manufacturers — Daimler, BMW, Ford and the VW Group — announced at the end of 2016 that they plan to set up a 400 site recharging network that can be used by all their electric models along major routes with a charging speed of 350kW. Tesla will be excluded.

More hurdles

However, two more fundamental factors make or break electric vehicles as the real harbingers of low-carbon change in transport.

The first is that electric cars are zero carbon at the point of travel. They store and use electricity — very efficiently — that is generated elsewhere. If that “elsewhere” involves coal, lignite or oil electrical generation, then they provide no, or very little, sustainable gain. If instead they depend on gas-fired power generation, then they offer a carbon gain over diesel or petrol-powered transport. However, if they draw on renewable energy, they can approach zero-carbon credentials.

This is important to the UK’s conversion to a largely no-or-low-carbon energy mix central to meeting the country’s statutory commitments. It is also a controversial area where ministers are being pressed to implement policies to make the transition happen faster.

Remote pollution

The second factor in the equation to make electric vehicles truly sustainable from cradle-to-grave involves a potential negative.

Manufacturing electric vehicle components means extracting, refining, working with and disposing of waste from the light, reactive metal lithium used to create lithium-ion batteries. This is a boom industry in faraway places round the globe where environmental impacts also need good management.

There are parallels here with generating electricity for electric cars in power stations that create remote pollution, as opposed to poor air quality emitted by internal combustion engines and diesel particulates on congested urban roads. However, pollution is still pollution with real social and health impacts. Sustainable lifecycles mean that all impacts must be taken into account. And this is where what might appear to be a blessing can turn out to be very much the opposite. China is an example.

China could take a lead in electric vehicle making and use. However, although China has major renewable investment programmes, currently 85% of its power comes from fossil fuels of which dirty-coal-fired power provides 90%. Therefore, the net impact of electric cars is worse than putting more petrol and diesel vehicles on to crowded roads.

Statistics — the grammar of science

The UK Government is under fire for failing to meet its self-imposed electric vehicle targets. The current target is for 9% of UK vehicles to be electric-powered by 2020; the Department for Transport (DfT) admits that only a 3–4% uptake is being achieved.

Chairwoman of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, is critical. “The uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles is too low to meet the UK’s climate change targets at the lowest cost to the public,” she says.

She adds, “Air quality targets that were supposed to be met in 2010 won’t be hit until 2020 at the earliest.” The committee wants two-thirds of all new cars and vans to be ultra-low emission by 2030, but says that manufacturers need clear evidence of Government commitment.

Mary Creagh also believes that the DfT should give more weight to environmental and health issues rather than economic benefits. The Government response is that it wants almost all cars and vans to be zero emission by 2050.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) stresses that the industry is investing billions in developing new electric and hybrid models, with more than 30 alternatives now on the market. The SMMT wants ministers to offer drivers greater incentives to make the octane-watts transition.

Nissan, which makes the Leaf, says 98% of UK motorway services now have rapid chargers; electrical charging stations are expected to outnumber fossil-fuel filling stations by 2020.

Last updated 14 February 2017