Electric vehicles: energy revolution or tiresome hype?

05 Oct 2016   lucyejwoods

Some say electric vehicles (EVs) are pointless; driverless vehicles, public transport and hydrogen cars threaten to eclipse current EV models. Others are adamant EVs are essential for a decentralised, renewable energy network. Either way, forecasts say there’s going to be a lot of EVs.

Last weekend, EV driver, comedian and actor, Robert Llewellyn hosted a discussion titled ‘Inside Cars of the Future’, alongside experts from Imperial College London and Nottingham University, at New Scientist Live. Llewellyn predicted that by 2050, 70% of all road miles driven in the UK, will be driven by EVs.

Analyst, Aurora Energy Research also forecasts rapid EV growth; up to 10 million EVs on UK roads by 2040. (The Department for Transport’s June 2016 figures state there are currently 37 million licensed UK vehicles).

Aurora attributes this EV boom, to a battery boom. Up to 8GW of batteries will be installed in the UK by 2030, said Ben Irons, Aurora’s Executive Director of Energy Research at its conference earlier this month. One side effect of an EV-battery boom, is an improved return on investment for solar, enough to bring “subsidy-free solar forward by 5 years,” said Irons.

Highlighting more EV benefits, John Fiennes, Director of Energy Strategy, Networks and Markets at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said he lives next to “a polluted and noisy road,” and EVs “can not come fast enough.”

Speaking at New Scientist Live, professional electric motorbike racer, Jeremiah Johnson said the motor “sounds sort of like a high-performance jet engine – but much quieter.” Johnson even recalled hearing bird song while racing at top speeds (which can be over 200mph).

Also at New Scientist Live, professor in electrical energy conversion at Imperial College London, Paul Mitcheson, said owning an EV can help bring household bills down. Llewelyn confirmed this, saying he charges his EV battery at night when electricity is cheaper, and then uses the stored power during the day.

However, using EV batteries to reduce bills creates a revenue hole for grid maintenance. This puts non-EV owners at risk of having to pay ever higher energy bills, as EV ownership increases. “How the National Grid recovers its costs is a huge issue,” said Paul Massara, North Star Solar CEO, speaking at the Aurora conference.

Andy Burgess, Associate Partner for Energy Systems at Ofgem, agreed with Massara; financing the grid is a big issue as “smaller groups of people are paying.” In response, Ofgem is reviewing grid charges.

Although, at New Scientist Live, Mitcheson introduced one innovation that could halt lost grid revenue by halting domestic EV charging altogether: wireless charging.

Plugging into recharge “will become antiquated,” said Mitcheson, presenting an image of a green painted motorway lane; a recharging lane. Using inductive charging, EVs could be charged the same way wireless electric toothbrushes are today.

Wireless charging would also obliterate ‘range anxiety’, the fear of running out of charge. Range anxiety is a significant barrier to EV-uptake, despite 98% of UK car journeys being under 55 miles, and most EV models having a range of around 200 miles, said Mitcheson.

While lots of big names are excited about EVs, there is some tough competition. Also at New Scientist Live, Toyota was showcasing ‘Mirai’ – its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

Hydrogen cars are “essentially hybrids” as they use electricity and hydrogen, explains Sammie Ward, product marketing assistant at Toyota. Hydrogen cars have a range of 300 miles and only emit water.

Although there are just 7 hydrogen refilling stations in the UK, Ward said Toyota is planning to manufacture 30,000 Mirai cars by 2020.

But there are still questions such as “why even own a car?” Or “won’t we have driverless cars?” These questions were raised at the Aurora conference by National Grid’s head of network strategy, Phill Shepard.

Tesla, BMW, Google and other big names are all working on driverless cars. Michael Aeberhard, an automated driving research engineer at BMW told the Guardian that by 2020, highly automated cars will be available to buy.

However, even driverless cars could be in trouble (in urban areas) thanks to improved public transport, cycling and walking schemes.

This summer, the government set out details for the UK’s first cycling and walking investment strategy. The programme aims to double cycling rates by 2025 and increase walking, with a £250 million investment.

By 2020, Transport for London is aiming for its entire fleet of 3,300 buses to be hydrogen, electric or hybrid. In the very near future, it’s possible people will be able to choose from hybrids, EVs, hydrogen cars and buses, automated cars, or simply walking or cycling.

From wireless charging lanes to hydro buses, the changes underway in UK transport, as said by Llewellyn, have “the potential to interrupt energy the same way the internet disrupted, well, everything!”


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