Behind the wheel of the revolution
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Five things you need to know about electric cars.
“The minute you drive one of those things, there’s no going back” so says my other half, lured by the 3-second, 0-60 mph of his Tesla test drive. More than just a boy’s toy Electric Vehicles (EVs) promise to clean up our air and change our driving habits forever. If you’re one of the 61% of people considering one, here’s’ 5 things you might want to know before you jump on board the electric bandwagon:
1. Are electric vehicles really zero emissions?
In 2020 the global pandemic and a ban on non-essential travel forced many millions of us to park up our vehicles and stay at home. Collectively, this single action was responsible for 44% of the unprecedented 2.6 billion tonne drop in CO2 production (the rest made up by industry (25%), power (19%) and aviation (10%)). As we hurtle towards 2030, the year the government will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in the UK, will EVs really take the carbon out of our commute?
While they don’t emit greenhouse gases directly, the electricity they run on is still partly produced from fossils fuels. Studies suggest in the UK, lifetime emissions from electric cars are currently about 30% lower than petrol cars and up to 70% lower in countries such as Sweden where electricity is mostly derived from renewables. The good news is that solar and wind energy may push fossil fuels out of the electricity sector by the mid-2030s and at that point emissions from EV’s will be near zero. The remaining carbon footprint belongs to battery production, which, for a 75-kilowatt-hour battery in something like the Tesla Model 3, equates to between 1.4 and 2.4 years of emissions from a petrol-powered equivalent.
2. Will an electric car get me where I want to go?
Depending on the size of its battery, a modern EV can travel a range of between 150 and 400 miles. “Range anxiety”, the worry that you’ll run out of charge before you get where you’re going, still holds the top spot next to purchase price in consumer reluctance to go electric. In reality, most of us drive an average of 20 miles per day or 142 miles per week, so we’re unlikely to run out of charge even if we plugged in just once a week.
Charging at home for the one third of households that do not have off-street parking however, remains stubbornly challenging. While solutions being touted range from converting lampposts to EV chargers or installing wireless charging along residential streets, the infrastructure has not yet kept pace, accentuating transport inequalities between those that have access to charge points and those that do not. “There is a real risk now that as we move into this fully electric world, there's a whole bunch of people that might be disenfranchised in terms of mobility,” says Professor Peter Wells, Director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at the Cardiff Business School, “what I don't see at the moment, particularly from the government, is a real vision for where they want to go with this.”
Even for those of us with at-home chargers, long journeys might have just got a little longer. It takes an average of 35 minutes charging to add 100 miles of range to your EV but the promise to ensure at least six high-powered, open-access EV charge points are installed at every motorway service station in England by 2023, has failed to keep pace with rocketing EV sales. So common is ChargePoint queuing, that last month the RAC felt compelled to issue helpful guidance on charging etiquette.
3. Why are electric cars so expensive?
There is no getting away from the fact the upfront purchase price of an EV is still higher than its petrol or diesel equivalent. The combustion engine industry has had 100 years practice to perfect its chain of supply. EV production technology is a long way behind in terms of economy of scale. Up to a third of the upfront cost of a new EV is its lithium-ion battery requiring metals including lithium, cobalt and nickel the production of which has struggled to keep pace with the growing demand for batteries, driving up the price. Recent research by BloombergNEF, however, suggests as battery production is upscaled and the science of battery chemistry improves, battery costs will continue to fall towards the £70/kWh by 2026 that would mean price parity with petrol or diesel cars.
Despite the initial outlay, surging fuel prices have led some industry experts to estimate that over their average 14-year lifespan EV ownership could save some households up to £1300 per year compared to their petrol-car owning neighbours. In the UK, domestic electricity will today set you back about 28p per kWh which means you could drive about 250 miles in your average 60kWh electric car for less than £17. The equivalent cost in fuel for the average UK vehicle is about £43. Compounding that, zero road tax and cheaper servicing (EVs only have about 17 moving parts compared to the 400-500 in a petrol engine) drive lifetime EV ownership costs right down. The bad news is, unlike petrol and diesel cars that have largely hit a technological plateau, improvements in EVs from one generation to another will likely leave a trail of devalued vehicles, a tough sell in a 2nd hand market. If you want your car to keep pace with the rapid advance of battery technology, then much like smartphones, you might consider leasing a vehicle rather than buying it.
4. What’s the environmental impact of electric vehicles?
Despite their environmentally huggable image, EVs still have a few dirty secrets under the bonnet. If, like me, you’ve tried to limit your mobile phone upgrades out of concerns about cobalt mining’s human rights abuses in the Congo and nickel mining’s habitat destruction in Indonesia then you’ll be alarmed to know that while there is a single lithium-ion cell in your phone, your EV has at least 5000 of them. Upscaling the production of lithium, is also problematic. It’s found most abundantly as lithium carbonate salts in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, a region that has come to be known as “the Lithium triangle “. Here, up to half a million litres of salty groundwater are pumped to the surface and left to evaporate to produce just a ton of lithium.
Mining lithium salts in Bolivia
Mining vast quantities of groundwater like this draws down the water table with severe consequences for the local ecosystem and its inhabitants. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining consumed 65% of the regions water, with little left for farming communities or wildlife. The alternative, where lithium is mined from open pits, mostly in Australia and China, then heated using fossil fuels releasing a whopping 15 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lithium is no more environmentally appealing.
Innovative science may offer up a more palatable alternative. Researchers at Monash University in Australia are pioneering a new filtration technique using a synthetic Metal-Organic Framework (a bit like a sponge with precisely built holes) that is tuned in size and chemistry to selectively filter out lithium ions from groundwater. Published last year in the journal Nature Materials the discovery promises to slash lithium extraction times from years to hours and enable an efficient and more sustainable mechanism of lithium mining.
Recycling lithium from spent batteries must also scale up. Forecasts suggest that by 2025, the UK could have acquired 100,000 redundant EV battery packs, that’s 24,000 tonnes of lithium ion battery waste for which there is currently no readily available sustainable solution. As innovators push the boundaries of EV battery life, a quiet race has begun to deal with battery deaths.
5. I’m not ready to buy an electric car, what’s the alternative?
The answer might be a bicycle, electric or otherwise. As we roll closer to 2030, the move towards mass vehicle electrification has gathered urgency but for it to truly move sustainability goalposts, it must be part of a bigger post-pandemic recalibration.
“Wholesale replacement of something like 30 million vehicles doesn't seem to me to be a particularly efficient or good answer to our current problems,” says Peter Wells, Professor of Business and Sustainability at Cardiff University, “we really do have to grasp this opportunity, not just to take onboard electric but also to reduce the need for mobility in general”.
The Pandemic shifted the landscape of mobility and many of us are happy to continue to work from home, get the shopping delivered to the door and swap out the bus for a bicycle.
Research from Oxford University found the Pandemic brought with it a huge rise in active transport, a trend that may be set to stay. Switching from driving to cycling for one trip a day can reduce your carbon footprint by half a ton of CO2 per year, that’s a flight from London to New York.
Electric cars, it seems, are just one set of wheels in the revolution.