Has The Spark Gone Out Of Electric Cars?

  • Date: 22/08/10

With petrol prices sky-high and the Government offering inducements to go green, electric cars are being championed as the future of motoring. But as David Rose reveals, their real cost could give us a nasty shock…

The 2050 UK emissions target will, if adhered to, begin to change this, he adds.

‘To hit the 80-per-cent target, you have to get car emissions down to about 40g/km, and that doesn’t look very likely using fossil fuel. This target is the reason why the manufacturers are now introducing electric models: they’re looking at the longer term. But if that target were to be abandoned, then the economic and environmental case largely disappears.’

Or to put it another way, the broader argument for electric vehicles is essentially circular. We need millions of electric vehicles that will cut carbon emissions because we’re committed to cutting emissions.

Dr Sue Ion, formerly of British Nuclear Fuels and now a visiting professor at Imperial College, points out that to power all the electric vehicles required to achieve an average of 40g/km, Britain’s electricity-generating industry wouldn’t merely have to be transformed; it would also have to get much bigger.

‘You’d need the equivalent of a further 15 large power stations,’ she says, ‘with an extra capacity of 25-30 gigawatts.’

The cheapest way to do this would be to build new nuclear plants for around £4 billion each, for a conservative total of £60 billion. Infrastructure – the grid and so on – would be a further cost on top. However, nuclear energy is unpopular, and Chris Huhne has stated that new nuclear plants will attract no taxpayer funding

Charles Anglin, the spokesman for industry body RenewableUK, is confident that much of the shortfall in electricity supply will be addressed by private-sector investment in wind power. Britain’s current generating capacity from wind turbines is less than five gigawatts, but Anglin says this will rise to 30-35 gigawatts in the next ten years, at a cost of about £100 billion. This would require the construction of thousands of land-based turbines and about 10,000 giant three-megawatt offshore models – at a rate of around three per day.

However, wind power is inherently intermittent – a turbine will operate at around 30 per cent of its theoretical capacity on average. Also, says Dr Ion, building so many offshore turbines will ‘require pretty much the entire current world supply of undersea high-voltage cables, along with 70 enormous specialist construction barges. The scale of the challenge is rather daunting.’

An RAE report overseen by Dr Ion concludes, ‘Turning the theoretical emissions-reduction targets into reality will require… nothing short of the biggest peacetime programme of change ever seen in the UK.’ So far, there’s no sign of such dramatic change.

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