I should have looked into this more closely before making my previous post. The UK government is also looking to ban the sale of hybrid cars in 23 years’ time. This beggars belief, without some plan for how these electric cars are going to be reliably powered while – and we have to assume that this is the main long-term goal despite the talk about air pollution – cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
Without rationing times for driving, either directly or because batteries can’t be charged, the only option would be to build a whole fleet of nuclear power stations. Since it’s doubtful at the moment whether even Hinkley Point C is going to be built, there is little chance of this eminently sensible option coming to pass.
This proposal is either going to be watered down, or there will be some face-saving U-turn or postponement by 2030. In the meantime, subsidising the purchase of electric cars and the provision of charging facilities will be a massive drain on the economy which could largely be avoided if hybrid cars were the choice.
The UK government has now joined with France in banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2040. At least, that’s the headline, but in practice it’s likely that hybrids with modest battery range will become the new norm, with all-electric cars still waiting on a quantum leap in battery technology, massive investment in charging infrastructure and, last but not least, a large expansion in electricity generation.
The present generation of plug-in hybrids, with maybe a 30 mile range on battery and a small petrol or diesel engine for longer journeys, would certainly help to improve urban air quality, while still be practical all-round cars. Without such a government edict, however, their higher price would mean that the internal combustion engine would still be the choice of many. Over the next couple of decades, we can expect hybrids to become more capable and the price gap to reduce. Don’t expect much of a running cost advantage, though: governments aren’t going to lose billions in fuel tax without recouping the income in some other way.
There are, however, two elephants in the room. The first is that this move will require a big investment in electricity generation, and the power has to be there when drivers want it. Not everyone will be able to charge their cars overnight, particularly in cities where many people live in flats or terraced houses. But the alternative to thousands of accessible daytime charging points is simply to run the petrol or diesel engine to power the car and recharge the battery, significantly reducing the supposed impact on air pollution.
The other elephant, and one we hear less about, is the fact that car exhausts only contribute a fraction of the pollutants in urban air. Cars would have to be taken off the road entirely to avoid the particulates shed by brakes and tyres, for example. And, more importantly, the ubiquitous gas boilers put out significant quantities of NOx. If you think that the introduction of electric cars would cause a problem, that’s nothing compared to the infrastructure challenge created by a move to electric heating.
UK business secretary Greg Clark has announced a £200m+ investment in developing battery technology, as part of a broader industrial strategy. Despite being late in the game compared to some Asian countries, the intention is to boost the UK economy by making the country a leader in energy storage. There are a lot worse things the government could be spending taxpayers’ money on. We have been calling for investment in energy storage R&D for years. Without it, most of the current (subsidised) spending on renewable electricity is wasted.
At the same time, the plan is to reduce peak demand by enabling domestic consumers to have appliances turned off for short periods when demand is high. This has some merit, as long as it relates to non-essential items such as water heaters, fridges and washing machines.
But the policy is flawed because it also proposes to encourage domestic generation and storage of electricity from solar panels, with surplus to be fed into the grid tariff-free. While this may be of some benefit in summer, such households will inevitably be net consumers from the grid after dark and during the winter months. Conventional backup generators will still be needed, but will operate (expensively) for somewhat less of the year. The government hopes that fewer power stations will be needed, but this is very much a moot point at the moment.
And, importantly, the system costs will not go down. In fact, they are likely to increase further, because someone has to pay for the solar panels and batteries and few people will do so themselves without grants, subsidies and a guaranteed price for the electricity they export. However this system is constructed, taxpayers and most consumers will pay more. The projected £40bn that consumers are projected to save by 2050 (cumulative? per year? relative to what and making what assumptions?) is likely to go to those lucky house owners with south-facing roofs and enough money for the initial capital outlay. That means relatively well-off suburban and village dwellers, by and large.
So, it’s good that more R&D is being funded, but markets will respond naturally when breakthroughs in performance and price are made. In the meantime, subsidising inadequate solutions is not the answer.
In the autumn, the Scientific Alliance published two very important papers on the most recent National Grid FES study. Dr Capell Aris and Colin Gibson, both highly respected engineers with many years of experience at senior level in the electricity supply sector, covered both security of supply and costs, and their findings should be required reading for all policymakers and senior managers in the sector. The papers can be downloaded from the links below.
Security of supply Aris Gibson Sept 16
Energy cost Aris Gibson Oct 16