Friday, May 20, 2011

Electric cars

Had a phone call from someone trying to get me to invest in a particular brand's electric car market which got me thinking. There was a Channel 4 programme on last month, (last year?) asking why we didn't have electric cars - good programme, but it didn't expand much beyond the immediate. So rather than ask 'why don't we have electric cars?' let's ask 'why would we want electric cars?'.

From an environmental point of view it seems a dur - we're not burning precious fossil fuel and spewing gases into the atmosphere. Except aren't we? Electric cars need to be charged which means we need power plants to provide that electricity. Sure we can look at solar, wind, tide; but imagine if everyone in the UK switched over.

Could we build enough of these types of generator to cope with demand? Would they work at all times? Given that we couldn't cope with current demand throw a few million trying to charge cars up and I'm guessing no. That means we need different power generators - gas, coal, nuclear. Assuming the nuclear option is out; we're back to the reason why we've this car in the first place not burning dirty irreplaceables. Sure efficiency may be better so we get more bang for our buck in a generating plant compared to a petrol car, but that's a small justification to try to play with.

But let's assume we're mature enough to recognise nuclear as a viable option that opens up the political argument - it frees us from "foreign oil". That's a good thing surely? Well again maybe not. If the demand decrease but the OPEC and affiliated countries continue to pump the same quantities the price will drop. Rather than give up their luxurious lifestyles these countries will produce less.

So what? If it's still $30 a barrel (or whatever) we're still using less and surely the producers are happy because they're getting the same amount of money for doing less work. Win Win? Well there's a knock-on effect. With less easily accessible oil around it's in the producers best interests to get as much oil out of a area as they can. When oil was cheap large quantities were left because processing it cost more than the sale price. Even if the price stayed the same because less quantities are required the choice becomes - just take the easily gained amount we need or use this expensive process to get the same amount. Which one gives me the most profit? No investment in the expensive techniques and no investment in discovering new ones.

That leaves the final argument - because it's cheaper. But is it? Consider that I put a set quantity of petrol into my car. I know that so long as I'm not stuck in traffic for inordinate lengths of time I can get a set mileage out of my vehicle. Knowing the price I paid I can work out how much it costs me per mile. How much does it cost to charge up my electric car?

Using the Nissan LEAF as an example a full charge can be determined at 25 kWh. A range of 100 miles means 4miles/kW. The price of a kilowatt being say 11p that's 2.75p/mile. If I get 9 miles per litre out of mine and petrol is £1.359 per litre that's 15.1p/mile five times as expensive. Add in less moving parts and need for accessories I think it's safe to accept it's cheaper to run at least unless electricity prices rise.

Now the inverse question - why wouldn't I want an electric car?

A low top speed. The Nissan LEAF has a top speed of only 90mph. Yeah only. As that's 20mph more then you can legally do on any public road in the UK that's not an issue. Except doesn't the speed also have a relationship with acceleration? 0-60 in 10 seconds (unofficially) that's faster than mine; although I hate such figures as it's the curve that matters not the raw number.

Short range. Again the LEAF will do 100 miles on a full charge; that's less than half what mine will do. Except do we need more? Well that depends. Just like a petrol car if you want to travel further you just add more fuel along the way. That leads to the next argument:

Charging. 7 hours for a full charge using a normal home outlet. If 'petrol' stations fit the quick recharging sockets that will be cut down to 30 minutes. Ouch - but how long would it take just to top up? If I'm down to half a charge how long am I going to be standing at a 'pump'? Assume 0.25 minutes per 1% with the quick charger and that's 12 and half minutes to charge from 50%. Kind of long, but not unacceptable.

Or at least it would be assuming you can make it to a topping-up point. If I want to head to Birmingham not a problem the EV Network shows an entire five in that direction (three of which are next to each other) on the other hand if I chose to venture into Wales I'd have to rely on a friendly publican or some such letting me hang around for three hours to charge it up.

There is therefore a Catch 22 scenario evolving here. You're not likely to see many installing fast-charge electrical points unless they get a return on the investment; if there are no cars using them - no return. Except there won't be any cars until more charging points are added across the country.

With both zero tax and zero congestion charge it's ideal for something you'd only use occasionally. Ideal for London with it much better connected public transport system. However if you're only going to use it occasionally why do you need one at all. Longer trips outside the city? Except you can't because the charging stations aren't in operation nationally. Public transport outside the city - yeah right with the rumours of price increases on the way. Might as well buy and keep a cheap petrol car at least that can get you around.

The connected problem to that is what happens if your battery dies? In a petrol car you can walk to the nearest station and get a canteen just to tide you over. With an electric car you'll need to wait for a handy passing generator.

The solution would appear to be the hybrids. Minor or zero tax and zero congestion charge with the added benefit of being able to fuel up as you like. Does this help the electric cause? With less fuel sales stations will need to try to claw back some money either by charging more or fitting charging stations. Hopefully this would spread from London and half an avalanche effect.

Of course they'd be a much quicker way beyond incentives and discounts  - every petrol station from 2014 needs to be fitted with at least one quick charger. With the knowledge you're never going to be that far from a charging station use will increase; as they get used more stations will fit more of them.

Still doesn't solve the running out problem, but you've less of an excuse not to. This does lead to a different problem.

With the current zero tax on electric cars if we all switched the government would lose about £5bn per year. Lose all the fuel duty and that's about £22bn. Okay lorries etc. would probably still be petrol/diesel for some time; but even half of that means a loss of £13.5bn a year. Where's that going to made up from? Set a flat electric vehicle tax rate? Too high and you'll hear the squeal; too low and not enough coming in. Increase aviation fuel duty, which in turn increases the cost of any products being imported/exported by air as well as cutting off the cheap flights. Increase base tax, squeal.

It's a big complex issue with multiple ramifications.