RAC Cars News


Electric Cars: Viable Or Not?

By raccars Published

The electric car is the potential saviour of the city centre. As local pollution levels rise to dangerous levels – Justin Bieber’s collapse at the O2 was blamed by some on London’s many days of officially ‘highly polluted’ air – the fact an EV pumps out ZERO emissions means legislators are looking at them with increasing favour.

Just one problem. The electricity that powers them is not quite so green. And making them is less green than a normal car as well. To say they are true eco cars is, currently, incorrect. For now.

Norwegian scientists recently carried out a life cycle analysis of the electric car, and discovered that in both production of the cars and production of their fuel, EVs have a much greater environmental impact than regular internal combustion cars.

Some EVs have TWICE the environmental impact during production than a regular car, due to the processes used in making their batteries. This is partly due to the low volumes of today's EVs – they comprised 0.1% of the UK new car market last year – but it’s also clear battery technology still has some way to go.

One actually built and in use, the scientists say the environmental picture of the EV starts to improve significantly, but even this is dependent on the country the car is used in.

In the UK, for example, 40% of our electricity is still generated by coal, the least-green way of producing power. Plans are afoot to shift our mix to nuclear and gas-fired power generation, reducing the mix of coal to around 11% by 2020, but this is not yet certain.

Indeed, the mix of coal in total electricity generation has increased recently, due to the rise in the price of gas.

It all adds up to an environmental picture for electric cars that’s much less clear than it seems. Yes, EVs are fantastic at improving local emissions, but they also displace emissions during use and are also worse for the environment during production.

Critics of EVs say they’ve been telling us this all along: currently, the electric car is not viable. You’re better off driving a really green version of a normal car. Ecological improvements for the cars we have today will continue to outpace eco gains for EVs for many years to come.

But car companies are pressing on regardless. Recently, Nissan started producing the Leaf EV in Britain – both the car AND its batteries are assembled on site at its Sunderland factory (among the most efficient in the world). This plant is lean and, thanks to 10 wind turbines producing 10 per cent of its annual power, green with it: production emissions from making the EV thus fall accordingly.

And remember, incremental improvements like this will continue to happen.

Naysayers criticise the EV today, saying it’s not viable, but forget that tomorrow’s model will be even better. And tomorrow’s energy will be produced in a much more sustainable way than today’s – it has to be.

When batteries become greener, and producing electricity becomes greener, the viability of the electric car will improve. They fact they are so effective once in use in reducing local air pollution means they certainly have a strong case.

They have not yet reached full viability. They will. Will manufacturer financial support, government incentives and public interest last that long, though? That’s another question entirely – and it’s this that poses the greater risk to the viability of the electric car…

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