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Electric vehicles

(We currently deal primarily with electric cars here rather than larger electric vehicles such as trucks.)

The UK Government has already set out its plans to ban the sale of new internal combustion-engined cars (ICEs) in 2030.

The main alternative to the ICE is currently the electric car, and there is already a consumer migration to the use of electric cars instead of ICEs. The graph below show the National Grid's figures for the number of electric cars in GB.

The transition to electric cars is in progress, but there are a number of key obstacles and issues that will make such fast progress extremely challenging.

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(Graph based on National Grid 2020 data.)


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Prices of electric cars

One of the main barriers to take-up of electric cars is said to be the price differential compared to ICE cars with similar capabilities and features. It is now generally believed that this differential has been substantially reduced, and that by the early 2020s it will have - to all intents and purposes - disappeared.

A counter to this has been the relatively cheap options for running electric cars. With free or very low cost options for charging electric cars, and with government support for installing specialised charging facilities at home, current users generally find that it is much cheaper to run an electric car than an ICE car.

However, see Road Fuel Duty below.

Range anxiety

One of the main barriers to take-up for many potential electric car buyers has been the limited range. The limited "en route" recharging options so far have made this particularly important.

However, for the most popular mid-range electric cars in 2019 the range on a full charge now exceeds 200 miles, and for some models - for example the Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model S - the range now exceeds 300 miles.

For many potential buyers - particularly those with private off-road charging facilities and those who do low mileages - range anxiety has been greatly reduced.

For car buyers who drive long distances or for whom charging is not straightforward, range is likely to continue to be an issue.

Battery issues

There have been a number of reports of shortages of some of the key materials that are needed to make car batteries. These materials include lithium, cobalt and nickel. Concerns have been raised by many car makers, including Tesla.

With specific reference to the UK, this letter - by the Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum - sets out the challenge, and makes it clear that the planned transition in the UK to electric cars cannot be supported by current rates of materials supply.

In March 2020, these concerns were heightened by the coronavirus pandemic and any consequential economic downturn, as explained in this Forbes article.

The shortages take two forms:

  • Short term shortages due to the need to increase mining/extraction rates to meet increasing demand.

  • Long term shortages due to limited reserves. For example, in 2020 the US Geological Survey estimated reserves of lithium to be 17 million tons. However:

    • Lithium is not only used for car batteries.

    • Resources of lithium are estimated to be 80 million tons, although it is not clear how much of this can be accessed economically.

Research is in progress to design and develop batteries that use more readily available materials. Options for alternative chemistries include sodium-sulphur, zinc-air and calcium, and there is also promise in the used of graphene. However, at present no alternative, proven battery chemistry that is ready to be used in large scale production is yet available.

Based on current estimates of lithium reserves (for example), there is not even enough lithium available on the planet for every current car owner to get one lithium-based battery. This is based on a typical need of 10kg of lithium for a car battery and about 40% of lithium being used for car batteries.

In many ways the situation with cobalt is even more challenging.

If we need to adopt an alternative battery technology for electric cars in the longer term to ensure an adequate supply of materials, should we be using lithium-based batteries in the meantime, or will we just finish up with a billion or two lithium-based batteries to dispose of and a need to create a similar number of batteries using the alternative chemistry?

Note this quote from the National Grid's 2018 FAQs document: "Our modelling in relation to meeting the 2050 carbon targets doesn't take into account the sustainability impact of the raw materials required to produce batteries".

Charging infrastructure

Although the number of public charging points is increasing, they still only need to support a relatively small number of cars, currently only about 1% of the target number.

According to government figures between 30% and 40% of car owners in the UK do not have access to off-road parking. In terms of the number of cars this means that about one third of cars cannot be charged in a home-based secure off-road location such as a garage or driveway.

To cater for car drivers who don't have access to "secure off-road" parking there are several possibilities, including:

  • Charge in public locations such as supermarket car parks or petrol station forecourts.

  • Install "on street" charging points.

  • Provide workplace charging facilities.

  • Install some kind of "under road" inductive charging.

There are other options, and different options will suit different car drivers. There will also be occasions when a car owner with private off-road charging facilities will need to use public charging facilities as well, of course. The key will be to decide which facilities need to be established, and to ensure that they are in place in good time so that the rollout of electric cars is not delayed.

At present no decision has been taken on which combination of the above and other options are to be implemented. A decision needs to be made.

Electricity supply

First, a quick estimate of how much electricity will be needed by GB's 32 million electric cars. How much extra electricity will be needed for each 1 million extra electric cars per year? Using a typical figure of 30 kWh for 100 miles for a Tesla S or Nissan Leaf equivalent, and if we take the average annual mileage of UK drivers as 7,600 miles, each million cars will need 2.28 TWh of electricity. So, when all 32 million ICE cars are eventually replaced by electric cars we'll need almost 73 TWh extra electricity per year. Great Britain currently generates about 350 TWh of electricity per year, so we will need to generate about 20% more electricity eventually, with a need to increase by a little over 1% per year for a relatively smooth transition, assuming that at the point of time when the sale of ICE cars is banned there are still quite a few ICE cars on the road, and that these will be phased out in subsequent years.

Given varied situations for car owners regarding access to charging facilities and their own car use patterns, it will be important to anticipate how this demand is distributed over the week. For owners with home charging and relatively modest mileage demands overnight charging - when electricity demand is generally at its lowest - is likely to balance the demand on the Grid best. This general background approach can incorporate "smart charging" to offer car owners a financial incentive.

However, for car owners without private parking, and for those who need to charge "en route" (for example), it will not be possible to adopt this simple model, so there will be extra electricity demand at times, including peak times.

The National Grid have said that they have modelled some alternative charging scenarios. It would be interesting to see the detail of the results they have come up with.

Road Fuel Duty

One of the consequences of the transition to electric cars would be that the UK Government will not receive the excise duty on petrol and diesel sales from car drivers. For each million cars that are replaced by electric cars that amounts to something over half a billion pounds per annum using typical figures. You can see over-arching UK Government figures here.

How will the UK Government replace this revenue - which amounts to over £20 billion per annum?