Are Electric Cars The Answer?

August 12, 2011Sectorby David Smith

Thunder Road: Sparking a Revival for the Electric Car
Thunder Road: Sparking a Revival for the Electric Car

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There is no doubt that the tide has turned for electric cars, but a more sober view of their role in a more carbon-efficient world is provided by Lancaster University’s Professor Roger Kemp, who carried out a study of electric car infrastructure in the UK for the Royal Society of Engineering.

“I am suspicious about people who are evangelical about anything, whether it’s electric cars, fighting Satan, or invading Iraq,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet we can point to and say: ‘Bio-fuels are the answer’, or ‘electric cars are the answer’.

"Whether an electric car is suitable depends on circumstances. For example, I live a mile from the university and go by bike. My car journeys are long-distance, which is inappropriate for electric cars. For long journeys we’d need batteries we don’t possess yet, and a lot of huge car-charging stations which would look like electricity sub-station, with pylons and transformers.

“So, for the foreseeable future, electric cars can only cope with short to medium distances, which is brilliant if you commute 50 miles a day. You plug it in each night at home. For longer journeys hybrid cars are an option, although there are many on the market yet. I also believe that when oil runs out in the 50, or so years, we will replace it with another source of fuel in similar types of cars. The electric option will remain an increasingly significant, but smaller part of the market.”

The main justification for electric cars is, of course, that they cause less damage to the environment, but how much difference they make depends on the source of electricity.

“With the current mix of sources in the UK, an electric car produces about 100g of carbon per km, compared to 150g per km for a normal car,” said Professor Kemp. “But in France, where most electricity comes from nuclear energy, an electric car produces only 10-15g.”

However, if electric cars are charged at night, they become more viable for the environment.

“You can’t store electricity in the grid, so it’s far better to use the electricity which is created by renewable energy from wind turbines and wave machines at night when it’s otherwise being wasted,” he said. “Charging them at night would make it viable to build bigger fleet of wind turbines, without risk of waste.”

David Smith,