River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Electric Cars - Again

June 2009

Ron examines the pros and cons of the proposed electric cars

Most people will be aware of General Motors' new electric car. I understand that the car is to be known as the Volt in the USA but as the Ampera in Europe and present plans are for the European version to be made in the UK by Vauxhall, assuming Vauxhall remains part of GM. I have seen in the press that there is a possibility that the Government would subsidise purchase of the 'Volt' to the extent of £5000.

Some time ago I wrote about the limitations of electric cars:

My first concern was that, until such time as the major part of our electricity is generated by non-carbon producing means, electric cars are no greener, in terms of CO2 production, than internal combustion engined cars of the same performance.

My second point was that it is not practical to charge an electric car from a domestic circuit with sufficient electricity to give the car a reasonable range combined with a reasonable performance.

My third point was that, if we were able to switch many of our cars to electric, we would greatly increase the demand for electricity and make the task of meeting our electricity demand from non-carbon sources that much more difficult.

All these concerns remain with the 'Volt'. It is different from other electric cars, however, in as much as it appears to be similar in size to a Focus or perhaps a Mondeo. But, although its wheels are always driven by an electric motor with power coming from a battery, it does have a substantial internal combustion engine incorporated within the car. Unlike the hybrid cars, the engine is only used to drive a generator that can be used either to supply electricity to the propulsion motor or to charge the battery. The way in which the electricity from the generator is directed is controlled by a computer. The electric motor has a 111kw (150hp) power output, this, combined with immense torque, ensures a fairly outstanding performance. Unfortunately the Li-iron battery has a storage capacity of only16kwh, that means that the car could use its maximum power for just 8.6 minutes before the battery was flattened. To travel at 70mph on the motorway might require of the order of 45kw, thus the 'Volt' could sustain that condition for about 22 minutes running on the battery alone. Clearly, without making use of the internal combustion engine, the Volt will be useless for anything other than short urban journeys. GM claim that it will complete 40 miles of urban use without requiring a re-charge, which is possibly a realistic figure.

The internal combustion engine fitted in the 'Volt' is a1.4litre engine driving a 53kw generator. The presence of this engine ensures that there are never any worries about having a flat battery, it should produce enough power to drive at more than 70mph and has a range limited only by the size of the fuel tank. Thus, in some respects the Volt is two cars in one, an internal combustion engined car for long journey use and an electric car for urban use. It is an interesting development, it is expected to be expensive, however, at around £30,000, it will cost twice as much as a Ford Focus. Unless it is used almost entirely for urban use, it is difficult to see how the price could be justified, even with the subsidy, especially since the Volt produces no less CO2 than a diesel Focus when the CO2 produced at the power station is taken into account. Nevertheless it might appeal to many.

Despite the indisputable facts relating to the limitations of electric cars as a green vehicle, the government and the opposition have made clear their intention to encourage their use. I am somewhat at a loss, however, to understand why they would do that. The Government's enthusiasm for electric cars mystifies me; they are not very green, they will increase the demand for electricity, they will require considerable investment in the provision of charging points and they are only likely to have a limited take up. In urban areas, where they might have their greatest appeal, many many people live in houses that have no off road parking, we have seen urban streets with parked cars nose to tail along their full length. It is clearly not practical to have electric cables trailing from the house across the pavement to the car. It is unlikely that councils or governments would fund a charging point outside every house, even if planning committees would approve such a thing. Many homeowners would probably be reluctant to pay for a charging point in order to have an electric car. There is also a question relating to the security of charging points. In some respects one could argue that the 'Volt' is a con in that GM are expecting financial help from the US and UK governments to produce a car that can only have negligible effect on the CO2 output of their automobiles.

In the end I would expect that there will be thousands of electric cars in use but, unless there is some government action in the form of punitive taxes or legislation, probably not millions. Currently there are approximately 28,000,000 cars registered in the UK, and there are about 2000 electric vehicles and 16,000 hybrids. The Government might subsidise about 66,000 electric cars. At present electric cars are only capable of reducing CO2 output by virtue of their reduced performance, but this may not be true with the Volt. It is possible that 100,000 electric vehicles could conceivably cut the CO2 emissions from UK cars and light vans by perhaps 0.2%. Cars and light vans produce roughly 15% of total UK production of CO2, 100,000 electric vehicles would, therefore, result in rather less than 0.02% reduction in UK CO2. Clearly the reduction in global emissions of CO2 would be negligible and irrelevant. Of course, if the electricity for the electric vehicles came from renewable sources the effect would be a little more worthwhile. To date, however, despite massive expenditure on wind mills, only 2% of our electricity comes from wind and, apart from the contribution from nuclear, the major part of our electricity is being sourced from the burning of fossil fuels. Not until we have met all of our existing electrical needs from non-carbon sources is there any point in expanding the use of electric cars if the sole objective is to cut CO2 emissions.

P.S. I heard recently that, because of safety fears, there is a proposal to fit an audible device to electric cars so that pedestrians might hear their approach. It reminded of a cartoon in which a blind man standing on the kerbside said to his dog "I think there must be an electric car coming, I can hear everyone laughing."

Ron Watts

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