Please Don't Buy an Electric Car

This was the title of a talk I attended this evening, given by Professor Alun Vaughan of the University of Southampton, and Professor Averil Macdonald of the University of Reading. As you can imagine the title is quite over-dramatic and the speakers did concede that it was to 'spark discussion', but they presented many facts that I, as a layman with an interest in electric cars, had not encountered before which have made me re-evaluate my position.


What's the Problem?

I'm very glad no one left after this section because if they had done they would have come away with completely the wrong impression. While this is a serious issue that has some quite brutal facts in it, I felt this section of the talk misrepresented some of the issues, particularly surrounding electric cars.

How much electricity does the average person in the UK use in a day?

It turns out it's around 5kWh, or 20kWh for the typical family home. For the USA it's about twice this, but for much of the world it's an order of magnitude lower.

Now, how much does an electric car take to charge? About 8kWh.

Currently the energy that a typical family uses to get around is provided by petrol. While an electric car would massively reduce their petrol expenditure, it would increase their electricity consumption by around 40%.

There's a problem with this though, the UK's power consumption peaks at about 60GW, but we only have capacity for 70GW, and capacity is currently declining. Clearly if a significant number of petrol cars are replaced with electric cars, the numbers just won't add up. Electric cars are obviously not the only problem here, all electricity consumption is a problem, but transport is such a large energy drain that it may well be the one that tips us over the edge.

On top of all this extra power being used, we have targets to meet on reducing emissions. That means shutting down coal fired power plants, reducing our gas usage, and moving to cleaner sources such as wind, solar, wave, geothermal, and dare I say it, nuclear. How are we going to meet demand?

What's going to be done about this? The speakers mentioned 'smart meters', not as a way for you to monitor your usage and stay efficient as that often has no effect, but rather as a way for external influences (government? energy companies?) to reach into your home and shut down appliances to save power. While I hadn't heard this spin on it before, I can't see this ever happening in the way it was described, certainly no one is going to turn your fridge off remotely, which was suggested, and I this point was therefore quite poorly made.

The Expensive Answer

The talk moved on to ways we are going to combat these issues. Interestingly the problem is not what I thought it was. We know how to generate power. Photovoltaic cells are getting better all the time, hydro-electric power is very good, and we are already building wind turbines.

Unfortunately we aren't building any of this fast enough in the UK. We have wind turbines, but to meet the government targets of having a significant proportion of our energy generated by wind in 2030, we need to build 60,000 of them. That works out as 15 a day. We have the potential to build lots of tidal power, but to meet targets we need to be utilising 1000km of coastline for it.

Once we have solved this problem, we need to get the power from where it's generated to everywhere else, and it's this distribution that is as much of a problem, if not more, than generating itself.

A connection from Hunterston in Scotland to near Liverpool in England is planned to distribute power more effectively. This cable is capable of carrying 2.2GW, which is around 4% of our power consumption. But a cable of this capacity has never been built before. It's costing £1 billion for the cable alone, and we're not quite sure yet whether it's going to work.

What we need is an international grid, that countries can trade power over, so that we can generate vast amounts of solar energy in the Sahara Desert, wind energy in the North Sea, hydro-electric power in the mountains of Scandinavia, and so on. But this would require cables capable of carrying tens of gigawatts of power, over thousands of miles.

We can do this. The technology might not be quite there yet, but the research is being done and it will be possible. But it's going to cost a lot. Estimates have put it at 5% of the world's GDP. I don't think there was an audible gasp in the audience, but the room certainly got a bit tense, and one of the speakers asked us if we were happy with that, expecting a 'no'. But surely 5% of GDP in return for continuing the heating, lighting, transport, computer infrastructure and everything else that we have come to expect.

To solve these problems though, we need the energy companies and the government to work together. We can't have energy companies ignoring things and going elsewhere because it's not profitable enough, and we can't have a government afraid of investing in technologies because they don't have wide public support, or won't get them voted in again.

Discussion

The final section of the talk was really a discussion with the audience. Many very interesting points were made here so I can't really summarise everything, but I'll highlight a few things that I thought were worth considering.

One of the probably reasons for the lack of nuclear power in the UK government's plans for the future (it is projected at forming around 5-10% I believe) is down to public opinion. Unfortunately people are convinced it's a really bad thing, probably for similar reasons to why people are scared of flying but drive a car every day despite the latter being far more dangerous. If it goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way. Coal plants churn out carbon dioxide in vast quantities, and are even more radioactive than nuclear plants, but lack of public understanding means they are more popular still and therefore it may well be political suicide to throw your weight behind nuclear power.

Another reason nuclear power isn't as popular as it could be is the expense. They are really expensive and as one audience member pointed out, each one is essentially it's own science experiment. The reactors are all slightly different, with different supporting systems and different supply chains. In many ways it's just still an immature industry.

China however is tackling this by apparently building 100 reactors by 2030, all to very similar specifications, a process that will benefit them hugely due to economies of scale. Perhaps in the future China will be one of the dominant players in nuclear energy.

The final point of interest I want to mention here is 'localised energy', or moving the generation, storage, and distribution down the chain to towns and communities. This is gaining popularity, partly due to subsidies that used to be given out to those who installed solar panels on their homes. Companies like Solar City, and arguably Tesla with their 'supercharger' network, are attempting to become distributed utilities, taking the load off the national networks.

There is however a problem with this in the UK, and possibly in many other countries, and that is that our 'last mile', the cables that get energy to homes, just aren't built for it. In the same way that not enough energy can be pushed down the wire to us to charge our electric cars, there is a limit to how much can be pushed back up the wire into national grids, and distributed around the country. In the UK our system was built in the 1960s to have a lifespan of 40 years, we've outgrown it.

The speakers suggest a solution. Maybe we should all go out and buy electric cars. We will experience brownouts), electricity prices will soar, and it will be difficult. But hopefully it will start some change.

Conclusion

I recently watched a film called Cloud Atlas, and there was a line in it that I quite liked:

You have to do what you can't not do.

I really felt that this was the crux of the talk. Electric cars, among other things, are going to cause issues in the future, not just in the UK, but all around the world. But the price of not adopting them will be far higher, the damage possibly irreparable. We can't afford to not do anything about it, so we have to force the issue into the priorities of our government and the energy companies.

We need to buy electric cars.


Many thanks to the speakers for a very interesting talk, despite my disagreement with some of the points. Thanks also to the IEEE student branch for hosting the talk.

Dan Palmer

I am a Computer Science student at the University of Southampton.
You can follow me on Twitter @danpalmer.