Report identifies electric vehicle challenges

3 min read

A report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering warns that the green credentials of electric vehicles could be undermined through a lack of low-carbon energy sources.

In Electric Vehicles: charged with potential, The Royal Academy of Engineering identifies the challenge of ensuring that the electricity supply system can cope with charging tens of millions of vehicles while still reducing carbon emissions from power generation.

In preparing its report, the Academy has identified four major technical issues. They include the availability of high-energy density batteries at a price and with a long enough cycle life for electric vehicles to be economically viable; and the practicalities of charging vehicles, particularly for users without off-street parking.

Similarly, the Academy highlights the requirement for electrical distribution infrastructure to provide power to millions of charging points and the need for a national energy system and ’smart grid’ that can recharge millions of electric vehicles using low-carbon electricity without overwhelming local distribution circuits.

’Swapping gas guzzlers for electric vehicles will not solve our carbon emissions problem on its own,’ said Prof Roger Kemp of Lancaster University, chair of the Academy’s Electric Vehicles working group. ’When most electricity in Britain is still generated by burning gas and coal, the difference between an electric car and a small, low-emission petrol or diesel car is negligible.

’We welcome the fact that the motor manufacturers are so ready to take on the challenge of developing mass-market electric vehicles. We also welcome the new government’s commitment to mandating charging sockets for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, but establishing these as the technology of choice for personal transport is only one aspect of what is needed to reduce transport emissions.’

The current contribution of renewable and low-carbon generation to the UK’s energy supply is one of the lowest in Europe, the report points out.

If the UK is to meet its renewables targets and ensure a greener power supply to electric cars, a range of new low-carbon energy sources will be needed, including new nuclear power stations, wind farms and tidal barrages.

As the Academy recognised in its recent report Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050, creating this new energy system will require a massive change programme and robust leadership by government.

There are three interrelated policy programmes that are critical to the successful introduction of electric vehicles: low-carbon energy, universal broadband provision and smart electricity grids.

The report states that electric vehicles can only have a serious impact on carbon emissions if these three areas of policy are already in place.

’Delivering all four programmes will be more challenging than any other engineering project of the last century. We have a unique opportunity just now to ensure that all the policies work together and to recognise the critical links between them,’ said Prof Kemp.

’For example, recent discussions on introducing smart meters to every household did not include the functionality required to manage electric vehicle charging, which could render the first generation of smart meters obsolete as the electric vehicle market grows.’

Richard Parry-Jones, a member of the working group and former group vice-president of the Ford Motor Company, said: ’Electric vehicles could provide a major contribution to meeting the target of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

’However, they will only be built in mass production numbers when there is a compelling sustainable social and business model for their use to allow manufacturers to plan for a long-term market and when the new vehicles have a real carbon efficiency benefit over the latest internal combustion engines.’

There are ways to allow electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids to take over most of the present uses of petrol and diesel vehicles but these are unlikely to develop without financial incentives for early adopters.

In the medium term, the new government will need to indicate how it intends to replace road fuel taxation as electric vehicles gain market share, to allow manufacturers and potential users to make informed decisions.

A more likely alternative to widespread adoption of pure electric vehicles with their infrastructure requirement would be the plug-in hybrid.

While hybrids are said to have most of the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, the report says they do not rely on such a comprehensive network of recharging points at multiple destinations. Plug-in hybrids could be adopted quickly as family cars or executive cars, leaving pure electric cars to achieve initial market penetration as second cars, doing low mileage and having little impact on carbon emissions.