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Swapping gas guzzlers for green machines not enough to cut emissions says new report

06/09/2010 13:53:59

Two Lancaster academics contributed to a major report published by The Royal Academy of Engineering in May, which says that vehicles are only as ‘green’ as the electricity that charges their batteries.

Electric Vehicles: charged with potential, identifies the serious challenge of ensuring that the electricity supply system could cope with charging tens of millions of vehicles and still reduce carbon emissions from power generation.

“Swapping gas guzzlers for electric vehicles will not solve our carbon emissions problem on its own,” says Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University, Chair of the Academy’s Electric Vehicles working group.

“When most electricity in Britain is still generated by burning gas and coal, the difference between an electric car and a small, low-emission petrol or diesel car is negligible. We welcome the fact that the motor manufacturers are so ready to take on the challenge of developing mass market electric vehicles. We also welcome the new government's commitment to mandating charging sockets for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, but establishing these as the technology of choice for personal transport is only one aspect of what is needed to reduce transport emissions.”

In preparing its report, the Academy has identified four major technical issues:

· the availability of high energy-density batteries at a price and with a long enough cycle life for
electric vehicles to be economically viable.
· the practicalities of charging vehicles – particularly for users without off-street parking.
· the electrical distribution infrastructure to provide power to millions of charging points and
· the need for a national energy system and “smart grid” that can recharge millions of electric vehicles
using low-carbon electricity without overwhelming local distribution circuits.

Professor John Urry, Director of Lancaster’s Centre for Mobilities Research and a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering Working Group contributed to the Report by examining how a new electronic vehicles ‘system’ could develop. He argued that “The challenges of adopting a new system go beyond technological concerns. Success would depend on getting the business case right and fully understanding the sociological issues such as people’s embedded routines and behaviours connected to and embedded with current car travel and use”.

The current contribution of renewable and low-carbon generation to the UK’s energy supply is one of the lowest in Europe, the report points out. If the UK is to meet its renewables targets and ensure a greener power supply to electric cars, a range of new low-carbon energy sources will be needed, including new nuclear power stations, wind farms and tidal barrages. As the Academy recognised in its recent report Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050, creating this new energy system will require a massive change programme and robust leadership by Government.

There are three interrelated policy programmes that are critical to the successful introduction of electric vehicles: low-carbon energy, universal broadband provision and smart electricity grids. The report says that electric vehicles can only have a serious impact on carbon emissions if these three areas of policy are already in place. “Delivering all four programmes will be more challenging than any other engineering project of the last century. We have a unique opportunity just now to ensure that all the policies work together and to recognise the critical links between them,” says Professor Kemp. “For example, recent discussions on introducing smart meters to every household did not include the functionality required to manage electric vehicle charging, which could render the first generation of smart meters obsolete as the electric vehicle market grows.”

There are ways to allow electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids to take over most of the present uses of petrol and diesel vehicles but these are unlikely to develop without financial incentives for early adopters. In the medium term, the new Government will need to indicate how it intends to replace road fuel taxation for electric vehicles, to allow manufacturers and potential users to make informed decisions.

A more likely alternative to widespread adoption of pure electric vehicles with their infrastructure requirement would be the plug-in hybrid. While hybrids have most of the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, they do not rely on a comprehensive network of recharging points at multiple destinations. Plug-in hybrids could be adopted quickly as family cars or executive cars, leaving pure electric cars to achieve initial market penetration as second cars, doing low mileage and thus having little impact on carbon emissions.

Whatever happens, the introduction of electric vehicles will fundamentally change the way we use and relate to our cars in the future. Car ownership could be replaced by car clubs and shared ownership. “We face an uphill task,” says Professor Roger Kemp. “Cars are iconic and aspirational in a way that most other energy-consuming goods are not and are central to much of our contemporary culture. In Britain, you would not get 6.4 million people tuning in to TV programmes called Top Domestic Appliances or Top Condensing Boilers in the way they do for Top Gear.”

Electric Vehicles: charged with potential was published on Tuesday 25 May2010, available online at the Academy’s web site <> or in printed form on request from Richard Ploszek tel. 020 7766 0603,