Are electric cars the key to a renewable future?


In October 2017, London Mayor Sadiq Khan introduced the new Emissions Surcharge, which means that older vehicles are subject to an extra charge for driving in central London if they fail to meet the minimum European emission standards.

Penalising offending vehicles is one part of the solution. However, there are other important alternatives, such as electric vehicles, that could prove to be the real long-term fix. And there are encouraging moves in that direction.

Also in October, the Dutch Government announced that it plans for all new cars to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030.

The case for their much wider deployment is becoming ever stronger and it’s clear they will play a huge role in the continued move away from the reliance on fossil fuels. Beyond the well-documented environmental factors, they are reliable and durable, with less wear and tear so require less spare parts, including brake pads. They’re also cheaper to run than petrol vehicles and safer.

And they’re gaining in popularity. In 2013, some 3,500 of the UK’s newly registered cars were electric or hybrid electric vehicles*. In 2017, there are more than 63,000. However, for them to become truly mainstream, the industry is going to have to break through some challenging obstacles.

Speeding up the charge

When it comes to logistics, the main crux of the issue is the practicality of charging. To be fully functional whenever they’re needed, plug-in electric vehicles require easy access to locations where they can charge rapidly. A typical domestic 24 amp connection is simply not enough – so to achieve the required speed, vehicle owners will need a separate, expensive setup.

A community or business hub for charging is one option – but even this will require dedicated cables connected into a building to carry the electricity. A business hub setup will also come at a price, probably costing more than €1,000 a year over and above the usual tariffs.

Even if communal hubs become a popular option, they will likely create a bottleneck.

With just one or two serving a whole business or neighbourhood, ensuring every vehicle is charged and operational could prove impossible.

Greater supply for greater demand Let’s imagine a scenario where domestic charging ports are a reality. Now let’s imagine it’s winter, the sun is hidden, and the limited solar power must be shared between extra heating as well as several cars.

Aside from the point of charging, there needs to be sufficient capacity in the electricity network to run a nationwide fleet of vehicles.

The network must also have the flexibility to distribute electricity effectively throughout the day. On top of this, the industry will need to replace old, fossil fuel-powered plants as they come offline to fully realise a world of zero-emissions vehicles – all of which is a huge shift and presents major challenges.

The new energy infrastructure

The solution lies in creating an efficient underlying energy infrastructure, including charging networks and a pool of energy providers. Crucially, that infrastructure must look at distributed power, which is essential to replace the systemic risk inherent in having one or two core power plants.

However, this is a major revolution in the total energy supply for the developed world, so governments will need to play a pivotal role in defining the new landscape.

Educating the educators

On a very basic level, electricity is vital to the running of everything from banking and governments to transport and schools. Without it, there would be no healthcare. In reality, of course, these are complex arguments and the government needs representatives who fully understand their intricacies. The question is, just how well can politicians understand and explain the case for renewable energy to the public?

This is where the energy sector must play a crucial role, in educating governments and helping direct them on the key issues. The term ‘lobbying’ has gained some negative connotations for being self-serving. However, what’s needed is a different approach – one where organisations from the industry help champion a much wider agenda that will benefit everyone.

Campaigning will be one powerful tool. Public awareness campaigns have proved successful in helping to shift perceptions and, ultimately, change behaviours; and government will need to consider longer-term and phased campaigning to raise awareness and understanding. Might a short-term focus on air quality in cities be a good place to start, given its status as a hot topic at the moment?

The wider picture

It’s clear that the wider deployment of electric vehicles is a crucial topic. However, it is one vital ingredient in the broader push to decarbonise energy. The fact is that if, collectively, nations want to move forward with the Paris Agreement, a lot more energy must come from sustainable sources. That means public perceptions need to change. Homes might have windmills nearby, solar panels will become more prominent, and restrictions on older vehicles will grow. Instead of seeing these and other changes to infrastructure and policy as burdens, we need to see them as positive advancements. Civilisation as a whole relies on electricity and now is the time to come together to redefine its future. Electric cars could prove to be the catalyst for much-needed and widespread change. MI

About the author

Jacob Klimstra is a senior energy consultant who looks at how the industry could work to overcome the remaining barriers to a breakthrough in increasing the deployment of electric vehicles.