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The governments announcement implies that everything is on course for electric cars to eventually replace petrol or diesel cars by 2040, and all that’s needed is a government push to fund the infrastructure and overcome the inertia. Indeed, that’s what most people seem to think, that electric cars are inevitable and the only thing standing in the way of a wholesale switch over is the mindset of the public, hence the government should intervene to forcibly change it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There are several massive hurdles to be overcome before
electric cars will become widespread.
1. Where is the electricity going to come from? Charging a few thousand cars is one thing, millions is something else. Whatever energy is currently being expended by burning petrol will have to be generated as electricity, minus any efficiency gains. The current grid is woefully undersized to meet such a demand, probably by an order of magnitude when you consider peak loadings. We could build lots of nuclear plants, but the people who want electric cars don’t like them.
Wind is never,ever going to generate much useful power and dependence on solar power requires a step-change in technology which I think will come, but we’re not there yet. Will we be there in 2040? I don’t know, and nor does anyone. Otherwise, we’ll have to build more gas-driven power stations. Will this be better or worse for the environment than the internal combustion engine? Nobody knows.
2. The problem with electric cars is not so much their range but the charging times.
Nobody is going to want to sit around for more than ten minutes waiting for their car to charge
unless it’s overnight or while at work, but that seriously restricts the car’s use to regular, short journeys. To overcome this we need a step-change in battery or energy storage technology which isn’t even on the horizon yet.
So that’s two technological step-changes we need by 2040.
3. Nobody has really looked at the environmental and economic costs of tens of millions of electric
cars. The batteries are big, heavy, and expensive and contain nasty substances. They don’t last long, so how will they be disposed of? How much will they cost to replace? What effect will this have on the used value of the car? Electric cars require nickel, copper, and cobalt. Where do we get this from? Where are the mines?
All these issues can be solved, but only once the real costs and externalities are known, and compared with the situation today. Right now nobody has a clue.
The governments consider they have picked a winner anyway, regardless of cost, which will be immense.
In their efforts to improve the quality of air in western cities, politicians might well be make the environment in the developing world worse, especially around the mines.
Also, the upgrade of infrastructure to handle mass car charging is enormous. Thousands of miles of new copper cabling will have to be installed,
but at what cost – both in cash and environmental terms? Apparently this is something governments
think they can do – the same governments that can’t manage to install proper cladding on apartment blocks.
However the AA warned that the National Grid would be under pressure to "cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour", while Which? Car magazine warned that electric cars are currently more expensive and less practical.
According to a National Grid report, peak demand for electricity could add around 30 gigawatts to the current peak of 61GW - an increase of 50 per cent.
The extra electricity needed will be the equivalent of almost 10 times the total power output of the new Hinckley Point C nuclear power station being built in Somerset.
National Grid predicts Britain will become increasingly reliant on imported electricity, which will rise from around 10 per cent of total electricity to around one third, raising questions about energy.
If France also implement the same policy for electric cars by 2040, they will also require more generating capacity, as we import electricity from France will both countries upgrade generating capacity as required by 2040? If not where will the UK get the additional capacity from?