Our friend electric?

Government plans to give up to £5,000 to anybody swapping their petrol or diesel car for an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle is the sort of thing that The Engineer would normally support.

Government plans to give up to £5,000 to anybody swapping their petrol or diesel car for an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle is the sort of thing that The Engineer would normally support.

A call for technology development in the UK, alternative energy, bold thinking: it seems to tick all our boxes. In this case, however, we are not sure. The proposals bear all the hallmarks of a policy that has not been thought through.

The cornerstone of the proposal is the reduction of CO2 emissions, but how, exactly, would they be reduced? Certainly, electric cars and hybrids spew out less CO2 as they are driven. However, they are not a low-carbon technology.

The electricity has to come from somewhere and, with the timescales proposed by the government, that somewhere is going to be the current generating fleet, largely fossil-fuel-burning power stations. There are arguments about the relative efficiencies of internal combustion engines and combined-cycle power stations, but the fact is that emissions will not be eliminated; rather, they will be shifted.

Again, if joined-up thinking had been part of the process, it would not have been so bad if the development of an electric-car fleet had been linked to demonstrating carbon capture and storage. There is nothing wrong with shifting the power generation of transport from diffuse sources (individual vehicles) to point sources (power stations) if there is some way of dealing with those point emissions. However, CCS is still some way off – definitely not within the electric-vehicle policy timescale of 2011.

Then there is the matter of generating capacity and linked to that is the provision of charging points. The Department for Transport claims that the demand for charging up a vast number of electric vehicles will not put any strain on electricity generating capacity, because charging will be carried out in off-peak periods using smart meters.

Leaving aside the improbability of wide-scale smart-meter installations within the next 18 months, this is simply not true. If you have not got a garage or at least a drive, it is going to be very difficult to charge up at home during the evening and if you’re plugged in to one of the new charging points that are being promised while you are at work, then you are not going to be using off-peak electricity; you are going to be charging during peak hours.

Moreover, there was no sign of any accompanying investment in renewables generation or even any mention of it. In order for this to have a real effect on emissions, the generation of electricity will have to be low carbon. We know that there are plans for low-carbon generation — the proposed site for new nuclear power stations were announced recently — but, again, they are further off than 2011. In a time when we are supposed to be conserving electricity as much as we can, should the government really be proposing and expansion in demand?

A few weeks ago, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee of the House of Commons said that engineers rarely – if ever – have any input in government technology policy. It is unlikely that this has changed in the meantime and the electric-car policy certainly bears that out. We should be welcoming it. Instead, we fear it is a stunt.

One thing that clearly is not a stunt, however, is online social networking. Quick and simple ways of sharing information have quickly become part of most people’s routine. To help our readers keep in touch with the latest developments in technology and innovation, The Engineer has now joined the micro-blogging service Twitter. Follow us at twitter.com/TheEngineerUK to keep abreast of news stories and features as they appear on our website, as well as glimpses of what we are up to and what is coming up online and in the magazine.

Stuart Nathan

Special Reports Editor

Twittering on a computer near you