How green, convenient and affordable is the electric car revolution?

The government’s plan to move forward a ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2030 has been welcomed by the industry and environmentalists. But there are challenges to overcome. 

They are still far from fully green, with emissions coming from manufacturing, mining, transport and electricity generation. More work is needed to develop technology making them a truly sustainable option. 

Battery electric vehicles have grown in popularity but still make up only a tiny fraction of the market – less than seven per cent. 

There’s a whole system around electric cars that needs to be built.

For electric travel to become easy and convenient, petrol stations need to be replaced by charging stations, manufacturers and recyclers need to be established to deal with the rise in demand, and the industry needs to figure out how to obtain the minerals crucial to the millions of batteries that will need to be made. 

Electricity sources

Cutting emissions in polluted cities and areas of high congestion is good for people’s health. But the benefits to the planet are limited if the energy powering electric cars comes from polluting sources such as coal and oil. Electric cars are only as green as the power they use.

Last year in the UK “clean sources” generated more energy than fossil fuels for the first time ever, according to the National Grid. 

Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is on its way to being completely phased out, with May marking the first-ever month where the National Grid ran completely free of coal power, due to sunny weather boosting solar panels. 

And while electricity generation has historically been the greatest source of carbon emissions, the transport sector is now the single largest contributor, making up one third of energy-related emissions in 2018. 

There are issues around when cars are charged. People come home from work and plug in their cars in the evening, a time when electricity demand is already at its peak. “Smart” chargers which don’t begin actively charging until later are encouraged by the National Grid to mitigate this. 

Another issue is that most charging happens overnight, when sources such as solar aren’t available. 

Even during the day, if it’s not windy, wind power can’t power chargers. There are plans to relax planning rules to allow for huge battery projects to overcome this issue. 

Large-scale battery power storage is a relatively new technology, and it’s expensive. Companies are also examining the possibility of using the cars themselves as a battery network. 

Raw materials 

The UK has made strides with its domestic manufacturing industry. The Nissan Leaf is made in Sunderland and Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin have both announced investments in battery manufacturing plants. 

But these companies face challenges obtaining the raw materials they need to make crucial lithium-ion batteries in high-enough quantities. 

Cobalt is expensive and mined almost exclusively in the Congo, a hard-to-reach market that is beset with ethical problems. 

Nickel is found throughout the world but extracting and refining it to a form usable in an electric car battery can be inefficient and expensive. Much of that refining is done in China, making supply chains unreliable. 

Plans to develop UK lithium mines in Cornwall are afoot but in their early stages, so imports from Chinese refineries are still necessary for that too. 

Experts in this area call for recycling capability to be ramped up, both for environmental reasons and to ensure a ready supply. 

Lithium-ion batteries are typically broken down and the valuable elements like cobalt are extracted, but the process can be energy intensive and leads to carbon emissions. 

Electric car batteries have a finite lifespan of one to two decades, and the infrastructure needed to dispose of them is not yet in place. 

The UK currently has no battery recycling plant of its own, exporting its materials to Europe and further afield, a practice which carries its own carbon footprint. 

Price and size

Many of the most popular electric cars currently available are luxury items. Tesla has made electric cars seem fun, exciting, prestigious – and expensive. While the company has brought its prices down, its cheapest model now costs £40,000, still out of range for most people. 

Other manufacturers, including established giants such as Ford and newcomers such as Lucid and Fisker, also focus on the middle or upper end of the market. They also tend to be on the larger, heavier side. 

There’s a good reason for this. The lithium-ion batteries used to power these cars are a relatively new invention.

Battery technology is improving all the time, and packs are becoming lighter, cheaper and smaller. But to make the investment worthwhile, and to guarantee good performance, car makers started at the top end of the market. 

Earlier this year, Ford warned that it could be years before its smaller cars, historically popular in the UK, went electric.

“The battery cost can be more than a small Fiesta,” said Darren Palmer, the man leading the company’s push for electrification. Car design and development can take years, and now with only a decade to go, timelines look tight. 

There are worries that a push for electric cars could freeze lower-income people out of the market. As Ben Houchen, Conservative mayor of Tees Valley told Radio 4’s Today programme: “People are going to care about the cost to them in their everyday life. Being able to replace a car is not a luxury everyone has.” 

But there is reason to hope. Battery costs are falling more quickly than many expected, manufacturing is becoming more efficient, and there are breakthroughs all the time.

Companies are now pouring money into new battery chemistries and designs, something a growth in demand will accelerate. 

Not all popular electric cars are luxury SUVs. Nissan’s Leaf, made in Sunderland, costs less than £30,000 and has a range of more than 150 miles. It’s consistently one of the most popular electric cars in the UK.

Still, that is out of many people’s price range, and even the very cheapest end of the market prices only drop to £17,000.

There will be scrutiny on the government to make sure policies are in place to help people who are forced to replace their existing petrol car with an electric one.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the upfront cost of an electric car is higher, the cost of fuel means that it almost always ends up being cheaper than a petrol equivalent over its lifetime. 

Charging 

While petrol stations are ubiquitous on British motorways and towns, charging stations are harder to come by, particularly in more rural areas outside big metropolitan centres like London. 

“Range anxiety” is often cited as a major stumbling block for electric cars. The fear of running out of power in the middle of nowhere will put some people off. 

The latest and top-of-the-range cars have ranges of over 250 miles, but even that won’t do much to allay people’s worries if they can’t be confident that a charger is nearby. 

Even in California, where Tesla’s own network of charging stations is more established than anywhere else, journeys have to be carefully planned to avoid running out of power. 

Figures from charging map app Zap-Map show that there are now 12,735 charging locations across the UK, and 35,323 individual connectors, up from less than 30,000 last year. 

But these are not evenly distributed. More than a quarter are in Greater London and another 13 per cent are in the South East. Seven per cent are in the North West and less than four per cent are in the North East and in Wales. 

The government needs to convince people that it can make sure people all over the country can access charging points. There are plans to install them in supermarkets and tourist attractions, as well as including them in new-build developments.

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