Is an electric car future sustainable?

18 : 08 : 2017 Automotive : Sustainability : Technology
Tesla X Tesla X

Our new-found love affair with the electric car could lead to a global vehicle fleet powered by fossil fuel power stations.

Steve Tooze, Foresight Editor, The Future Laboratory

Slip behind the wheel of a Tesla and you are left in no doubt that electric cars are having their iPhone moment. I had a week living the electric dream with the Tesla X, experiencing a car with practically zero fuel costs that nevertheless packs an impressive acceleration rate.

Admittedly, the Tesla X costs an eye-watering £99,000 ($127,652, €108,684) on the road, so hardly mass-market material. But the newly released Model 3 can be picked up for a relatively modest £26,000 ($33,531, €28,549), making it feel like an aspirational purchase for many middle-class consumers.

As well as greater affordability, the electric charging infrastructure is growing. The number of public charging points in Europe has doubled in just two years to more than 100,000, according to EU research.

Practical worries about recharging are fading fast. By 2040, the date when the UK will ban sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles, more than half (54%) of new car sales will be electric, and a third of the world’s light duty vehicle fleet will be electrified, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The thought that the electric car is finally reaching a consumer tipping point puts a smile on the face of a self-confessed environmentalist such as myself. The European Environment Agency says road transport is responsible for a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. But where will we get the power for up to 26m electric cars that the National Grid says will be plying British roads by 2050?

The danger of Tesla’s iPhone moment is that our new-found love affair with the electric car will lead directly to a global vehicle fleet powered by fossil fuel power stations.

Matthew Wright, UK managing director of Dong Energy, the country’s largest off-shore wind farm developer, says it would be ‘somewhat of a pyrrhic victory at that point, reducing NOx emissions in cities’ from diesel engines ‘for increasing CO2 elsewhere’ from conventional power stations.

Driven largely by electric car users, by 2030 UK peak demand is expected to rise by 8GW. Building more CO2-emitting gas and coal-fired power stations is not an option for countries seeking to meet their Paris climate agreement commitments. Similarly, building new nuclear power stations – ostensibly a low-carbon strategy – would be expensive and time-consuming.

With that in mind, Wright believes that renewables are the only viable strategy to make an electric car future sustainable. ‘Renewable energy and electric is a natural fit,’ he says. ‘The challenge will be combining the rise of the electric vehicle with the rise of storage and batteries, and the rise of smart technology. To meet it, the sector will need to enter a whole new phase of innovation.’

Tesla is leading the charge into this new phase with its PowerWall battery, designed to allow home-owners to store and use energy from intermittent sources such as solar and wind power. Wright’s own business is part of the same revolution. Dong plans to add a 2MW battery to its off-shore wind farm at Burbo Bank in Liverpool Bay to feed power into the National Grid when wind speeds are low.

With innovators beginning to join the dots between renewable energy and a growing electric car fleet, it is beginning to look more likely that Tesla is leading us into a clean energy future rather than down a carbon emissions cul-de-sac.

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