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Time to switch on to electric vehicles?

Tesla P100The Tesla P100 vividly illustrates the potential of electric vehicles. One of the fastest production cars ever made, it can travel 300-500 miles on a single charge, depending on speed and cabin heating demand.

'Zero emissions, zero tax' is the favourite line of anyone trying to sell you an electric vehicle - and if you live near London, they will add 'zero congestion charge' when you drive into the capital. Then they might also point to the UK government's intention to ban sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, in a bid to to tackle air pollution.

Latest figures show that transport accounts for 24% of UK greenhouse gases, and hence cutting vehicle exhaust emissions has a major part to play in moving to a low-carbon economy (see A 'zero-carbon' vision for Britain). Support for electric and other ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) features prominently in the government's Clean Growth Strategy for the next decade.Nissan Leaf

Fuel costs are around 3 pence per mile for the all-electric UK-built Nissan LEAF.
But what are the other pros and cons?

Growing sector

Hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, are now a common sight on Britain's roads, with owners attracted by the greater fuel economy and reduced road tax. However, many manufacturers now also include plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars and vans in their range, and sales of these are expected to grow in coming years. For example, in the UK registrations of electric cars rose from 6000 in 2014 to 47,000 in 2017, accounting for nearly 2% of market share.

Cumulatively there are now well over 150,000 plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles on British roads. Nissan has sold around 20,000 of its British-made Leaf all-electric cars, but the most popular UK plug-in model remains the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV SUV, which has sold over 33,000 units. The next greencar website has more information about market stats and the available models.

Zero S bike

Electric motorcycles, like this Zero 'S', are also part of the growing EV market.
Typical running costs are around 1 pence per mile.

Incentives

To encourage more people to drive electric cars and other so-called ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs), the government has set aside more than £900 million, to provide various incentives and develop a network of electric vehicle (EV) charge points around the country. So what are the incentives currently on offer?

  • Plug-in car grant: 35% toward the purchase price of a new eligible EV (up to a maximum of £4500 for the 'greenest' category 1 models, or a maximum of £2500 for other categories)
  • Plug-in van grant: 20% toward the cost of a new vehicle (up to a maximum of £8000)
  • Motorcycle grant: 20% towards cost up to a maximum of £1500
  • Grants for domestic chargepoint installation: up to 75% of cost of installing dedicated chargepoint at home (up to maximum of £500) under the Office of Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) scheme.
  • Funding for local authorities, other public bodies and businesses to install on-street charging or publically accessible chargepoints on their land

See which vehicles are eligible for a plug-in grant on the GOV.UK website.

Chargepoints

There is an expanding national network of over 10,000 EV chargepoints - for example, Stafford town already has about a dozen - and many garages and motorway service areas now have them. Various maps are available on the internet showing chargepoint locations, such as Zap Map on the Go Ultra Low website. However, these differ in their coverage and currency, and some require registration to access the information. EV chargepoint

One of two on-street EV chargepoints at Stafford's Beaconside Technology Park - part of a rapidly growing network.

The Plugged-in Midlands project, operated by Chargemaster, is part of the national charging infrastructure programme, called Plugged-in Places, being promoted and part-funded by the government. Its website has a fairly good, though not comprehensive, map of public chargepoints throughout the Midlands region. Motorists can join the scheme for an annual fee of £20 + VAT, for which they receive a smart card providing access to all Plugged-in Midlands charge points. Most of these provide electricity for free, whereas other chargepoints on commercial premises may charge your credit card as well as your vehicle!

Some schemes, such as Charge Your Car, provide apps for mobile devices which enable drivers to locate chargepoints when on the move, providing information about speed of charging, cost, status, etc.

Charging times

The time taken to fully charge the batteries of an EV from empty vary according to the capacity of the charge point:

  • Standard 3 kW socket (e.g. at home): 8-12 hours
  • Fast 7 kW charge point: 3-4 hours
  • Rapid 50 kW charge point: 0 to 80% charge in ~30 minutes

EVs can be charged at home using a standard domestic 13 A socket, but it is safer and quicker to use a dedicated home charging unit, either a standard 16 A or fast 32 A unit. There are grants toward the cost of installation (see above).

Upsides and downsides

Positives

  • Exempt from paying UK road tax.
  • Very low fuel costs - typically 3 pence/mile for cost of electricity (depends, e.g., on whether vehicle is charged using off-peak tariff )
  • Zero tailpipe emissions, and hence better air quality, especially in urban areas
  • Zero congestion charge for London
  • Can serve as stores of surplus electricity generated by, e.g., solar panels. See 'Energy storage: a smart move?'

Negatives

Electric vehicles may have zero emissions on the road, but they are far from being zero carbon when charged from the mains using the conventional mix of generating fuels. In fact, they may have only a slight advantage in terms of carbon cost over the most efficient diesel-powered cars. But this advantage will increase with 'greening' of the electricity supply, and it will already be apparent for owners who have a green electricity supplier, or have their own solar panels, for instance.

Another argument against EVs is the greater manufacturing cost in terms of resources, energy and CO2 emissions compared with conventional vehicles. But this is an evolving technology, and with increased volume will hopefully come greater efficiencies of production, and better recycling of components, which will all help to lower carbon costs.

Limited range: typically a full charge will last for 60-120 miles, depending on driving conditions and how much you use the heater!

Electric vehicles are considerably more expensive to buy compared with their conventional equivalents. For instance, the Nissan LEAF, a small family hatchback, costs in the range £21,600 to £27,790 to buy outright, including the £4500 government grant. In some cases this upfront cost can be reduced by leasing the battery for a fixed term of, say. three years. So in the case of the LEAF, this would cut the initial outlay by a further £5000 with leasing charges of typically £70-90 per month for average mileage of 7500 to 12,000 miles. A similar deal applies to Renault's Zoe, which costs from under £14,000 OTR, with battery leasing from £25/month (for 3000 annual mileage).

 

Fuel cell vehicles

These ultra-low emission vehicles use an electrochemical reaction to convert a fuel, such as hydrogen, methane or petrol, into electricity, which powers a motor to drive the wheels. The efficiency of energy conversion is much greater than with an internal combustion engine, and if hydrogen is the fuel, tailpipe emissions are chiefly water vapour. Several manufacturers are developing vehicles that use this technology. In 2013 Korean carmaker Hyundai started a production line for its ix35 Fuel Cell, supplying a fleet of 15 vehicles to the city of Copenhagen. The compressed hydrogen fuel is stored in two special tanks, giving a range equivalent to petrol-engined cars. This model was for sale in the UK at a cost of over £50,000. It has now been superseded by the Hyundai NEXO SUV.

At the end of 2014 Toyota launched its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car in Japan, and this is now available in the UK, albeit still on a very limited basis, with a price tag of over £60,000. Honda has its Clarity hydrogen-powered car, although this is not for sale in the UK.

Hydrogen can be generated from a range of natural sources, and is a versatile way of converting surplus electricity into a storable form of energy. The main snag at present is the lack of hydrogen filling stations in the UK - as yet numbering a dozen with public access. See locations on ZapMap using the 'hydrogen' filter.