The UK budget is coming around again next week, and as a preview the government announced plans this week to subsidise motorists up to £5000 to encourage them to buy electric or plug-in hybrid cars. We support the move as it sets a long term market shift for the industry which is sorely needed.
“There is a near-global consensus that something has to replace internal combustion engines, which account for 20% of the world’s carbon emissions, and it needs to happen fast. A perfect storm of technology, design and political will suggests 2009 will be the year the electric car begins its takeover in earnest.” (Guardian, 16 April 2009)
To set the context, the car companies are in a real pickle. Through years of poor strategic planning as well as the global economic decline, many find themselves struggling to stay alive. On top of that there is a limited reserve of oil and so they simply have to change from the internal combustion engine design. Then there is climate change – the UK government has to reduce CO2 emissions quite dramatically (about 22% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from transport, with 13% of these from private cars). And on top of that the UK has to meet air quality standards for PM10 and NOx (currently the government is in breach of EU limits). The only solution available so far to address all three is to create a giant shift in the design and promotion of cars to electric vehicles.
And judging on how long it takes car makers to alter course, we need to start that change now. Luckily there are several models being put into production already – the Tesla Roadster & the Vauxhall Ampera being two examples.
“Having a lot of batteries plugged into the grid would help the grid with ‘balancing’ the intermittancy of having lots more renewables plugged into it. We have far more wind, tide and wave potential in the UK than we need, but not at the right time, so finding storage is an issue, and having cars plugged in, to be charged when we have spare juice and serve as a buffer when we are short could potentially be a major benefit.” (Sian Berry, Sky news debate, April 2009)
While there are many criticisms of electric cars, including hydrogen and battery storage technologies, incentives like the one proposed by the government are helping to promote innovation in these areas. In the field of batteries alone there is a spectrum of new solutions, from battery ‘service stations’ (Project Better Place) to breakthroughs in design (new batteries that charge in seconds, not hours).