Electric Vehicles – Are They the Answer?

Electric vehicles have been hitting the headlines in the last few months, for the right reasons! In January 2021 The Guardian reported that globally sales of electric vehicles rose by 43% in 2020. As a result, industry experts believe that we are close to the “tipping point” of rapid mass adoption of electric vehicles. This came hot on the heels of the British government’s announcement in November 2020 of a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030; at last a positive move from a government which seems woefully unprepared to tackle the climate crisis.

So, we thought we’d take a look at electric vehicles, the impact they could have and the practicalities of owning them. Not yet being electric car owners, we don’t know much about the practicalities of owning one. Enter an electric car-owning friend who has kindly written the following about electric vehicles and his experiences:

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) are vehicles powered only by a battery – with no backup petrol or diesel engine. Government policy has already been set to ban the sale of (new) internal combustion engine (ICE) cars by 2030 (Hybrids get till 2035). Perhaps unsurprisingly, BEV sales are rising; up 184% in the UK in 2020 whilst petrol and diesel are both down by 40% and 56% respectively.
However, many people still remain sceptical about the high initial purchase cost, range, running costs, battery life, resale values and the lack of “joy” of a proper engine. The few early adopters of BEVs have battled through many of the early concerns and the road to ownership is now much clearer.
The second hand market is buoyant and battery aside (more on this in a moment), there are very few moving wearing parts, making a used purchase and long term ownership a possibility.  Prices range from £4-5k for a 2012 Nissan Leaf, £25k for a 2014 Tesla, to £100k for a 2020 Porsche Taycan!  
Battery range on all BEVs does degrade, but owners report typically about 1-2% per year in the first few years, levelling off at about 90%. Battery technology is improving all the time and owners assume that when the time does comes to change their battery (1) the replacement will be more efficient and cheaper and (2), the old battery can recycled and re-used. This is already happening with ex-car batteries being used in less demanding environments to store excess power from solar power during the day and feeding the house for free at night.
Most BEV owners get their charges at home; chargers are low cost as they benefit from a government grant. It is like having a petrol pump at your house – an overnight charge will deliver approximately 100-180 miles (depending on the vehicle). This is a key difference from ICE cars and filling stations.  A huge amount of the charging available is at destinations; where you are going to park and shop, eat or visit. Whilst parked, you plug in and get a top up. If you do need to get a fast roadside charge you can use many of the different high capacity chargers now appearing roadside. You’d be surprised how many chargers there are now – look at  http://www.zapmap.com to see for yourself. Charge rates vary, but 20-30 minutes should deliver 100-180 miles, enough for 2 hours before your next stop. For day to day use, it is no longer a problem and owners report few occasions that create genuine “range anxiety”.
There are next to no service costs. The only service items are washer fluid, brake pads and discs. The brakes though are rarely used; as soon as you take your foot off of the accelerator the car slows as the forward motion turning the wheels feeds juice back into the battery (just like a dynamo on a bike) and extends the range. The force required to turn the dynamo acts as a brake and slows the car. Because of this “regen” braking, the brakes last a long time – many owners report discs and pads lasting for more than 5 years.
Driving is very different and takes some getting used to – the regen effect means that you generally only use the accelerator with a push to go and a release to slow down.  Acceleration is instant and faster than most cars up to the legal maximum. The top speed is irrelevant as well as being illegal!  BEV drivers quickly realize how much more energy (and range) 80mph consumes than 70mph and they drive accordingly. 
Insurance is a little higher, but dropping all the time as insurers and repair shops get used to BEVS.  Finally – many BEVs get better over time as software updates subtly change the way they perform over the life of the car.

Living in a rural area with terrible public transport links, I’m hugely reliant on my car. I try to walk as much as possible, combine trips and get groceries delivered (for more tips on how to cut down reliance on your car, see our previous post 6 Ways to Reduce Your Car Use). However, particularly once Covid restrictions are lifted and I am no longer working from home, my car is a necessary evil.

According to Greenpeace, electric cars have about half the climate impact over their lifetime compared with today’s average European car. This stat takes into account the climate impact of mining minerals such as cobalt that are needed to make electric vehicles. However, the impact will obviously increase if the electricity used to charge them does not come from renewable sources.

Diesel and petrol cars and vans are responsible for circa 20% of all carbon emissions in the UK. And that’s just carbon emissions, never mind air pollution. The effects of air pollution on health include respiratory problems, heart disease and shortened life expectancy and the British government is consistently failing to protect us from this danger. This month, Europe’s highest court ruled that the UK has “systemically and persistently” exceeded legal limits for dangerous nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since 2010.

Knowing this, I struggle every time I get into my ageing, inefficient, petrol car. This is why my next car will hopefully be electric. As someone with very little interest in cars, when buying my current car a few years ago, all I wanted was a working stereo, air conditioning and plenty of cup holders! For as little as possible, because I begrudge spending money on something that doesn’t interest me in the slightest! At that time, I didn’t consider an electric or hybrid car, because I didn’t really know anything about them or think I could afford one.

About a year later, my husband got a new job with a longer commute and decided that he needed a more efficient, greener car. His new office had charging points for electric vehicles and he discovered a second hand Nissan Leaf for sale locally. Having done a bit of research, he emailed the car dealership to ask about the Leaf’s battery range. As the car was getting on a bit (it was from 2010, the first year of production), my husband enquired how much it would cost if the battery needed replacing. When the dealership responded, he emailed again to ask if they had made a mistake. No, they replied, they didn’t mean £2,000, they had indeed meant £20,000! Needless to say, this figure (which was more than three times the price of the car) put us off buying the Leaf. Instead, we ended up buying a hybrid, which is economical and certainly greener than our previous gas guzzler, but still not that green.

Now though, I wish we’d bought a Leaf. Electric vehicle technology has moved on considerably (so I’m told) and battery life is now very good, with the cost of batteries falling dramatically over the last decade. But this story illustrates a problem with electric vehicles; one of the biggest obstacles for most people wanting to buy an electric car is price. Even though electric cars are cheaper to run and maintain, currently the cheapest second hand electric car for sale on Autotrader costs £4,000. This is more than I have ever spent on a car and way more than a lot of people can afford. But the signs are all there that the cost of electric vehicles will continue to fall.

However, as Caroline points out, it is not just about what car you drive, but how you use it; in other words, we all need to become less reliant on any type of car as a mode of transport. As Christiana Figueres (co-founder of Global Optimism and former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) puts it, “the transportation sector has to undergo a radical reimagining – at speed! Simply replacing old cars with new ones won’t be enough. The resilient, thriving future many of us are working towards certainly isn’t full of ever-increasing car parks, tarmac and gridlock. We need new, better infrastructure design and cities that have more room for walking, cycling, public transport, food production and green space.”

There are also the issues of (1) how the BEV charging network is powered (the electricity needs to come from truly renewable sources to significantly cut emissions and air pollution); (2) the ethical and environmental impact of mining for the minerals required to manufacture BEVs; and (3) not yet having enough public charging points, for example for people who don’t have their own parking space at home and have to park on the street. As with most “green” solutions things are always a bit complicated!

So are electric vehicles the answer, the mythical “silver bullet” that will fix climate change? In short, on their own, no. But they can be part of the solution and a fairly big part at that. If you need to own a car, opting for an electric one when yours needs replacing is miles better for both the climate, emissions and air quality.

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