Britain’s Electric Car Strategy Is ‘Doomed To Failure’

  • Date: 03/06/20
  • Transport Xtra

The UK Government’s push to electrify road transport is based on naivety, the undue influence of the Committee on Climate Change, and a lack of engineering expertise within Government, an academic has said. 

Professor Michael Kelly, the former chief scientific adviser to the Department for Communities and Local Government, issues the warning in a paper published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

He warns the Government’s ambitions for EVs and electric heating in buildings will end in damaging failure. 

When the penny drops and the progress towards all-electric UK is halted, we will be reminded of Ozymandias [two poems that describe how even the greatest men and the empires they forge are impermanent, their legacies fated to decay into oblivion – Ed]. 

The rest of the world can look at Britain and choose whether to laugh or weep.”

On battery electric vehicles, he says:

Consider Dinorwig power station, the biggest hydropower energy storage plant in the UK. If all UK cars were battery powered, the nine gigawatts of energy stored behind the dam would be capable of recharging about 60,000 of them, or about 0.25 per cent of the UK fleet.”

If all vehicles have to be electric, “something of the order of 70 per cent of Britain’s entire existing electricity supply capacity will be needed”. 

When we get coded messages from the Climate Change Committee, implying that we will have to rethink the extent to which we are going to be able to travel in future, it is the implausibility of meeting that vast gulf in energy sources that is motivating them to question our lifestyles.”

Kelly points out that the Government’s net zero greenhouse gas target will also require the heating of buildings to be electrified using heat pumps. This will place huge additional demands on electricity supply, particularly in the winter. 

Charging battery cars at night, when electricity demand from other sources is low, is only a “partial solution” to the problems, he says. “The current day-night variation in electricity demand is of itself too small to handle the extra load. 

Another suggestion is that we can charge cars during the day, when solar power is high. But in the absence of storage, this would mean charging them from mid-morning to mid-afternoon on sunny days. This is implausible too, and would be unreliable [even] if we could make it happen.”

Turning to local electricity supply issues, he says “we will be adding electric vehicle chargers and heat pumps to almost every home”. 

A fast EV charger for a car draws 7kW, perhaps for six hours, and a heat pump needs 3kW, potentially for much of the day. But the cabling and substations in most suburbs were sized and installed before these technologies were even thought of. So while there is sufficient headroom for electrification of a few households, the whole distribution system will need to be up- graded if demand grows. 

“This work will be extraordinarily expensive, but without it there will either be regular ‘brownouts’, or drivers will have to be told where and when they can charge their batteries.”

Kelly dismisses battery storage as a major part of the solution. “The £45m battery installed by Elon Musk outside Adelaide, South Australia, can power that city for 30 minutes. If you wanted to be able to cover a week’s power outage after a major storm, it would cost around 1,300 times as much using batteries as it would with diesel generators. The idea is ludicrous.”

Turning to the raw materials needed to produce batteries, Kelly claims: “If we replace all of the UK vehicle fleet with EVs, and assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation batteries, we would need the following materials:

  • 207,900 tonnes of cobalt – just under twice the annual global production;
  • 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate – three-quarters of the world’s production;
  • at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium – nearly the entire world production of neodymium; and
  • 2,362,500 tonnes of copper – more than half the world’s production in 2018.

Put simply, we lack the ability to provide the infrastructure required to deliver electric cars and electric heating on the scale required by 2050.”

Kelly asks why we are trying to do so anyway and pins the blame on the Committee on Climate Change. 

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