Cars are synonymous with petrol and the internal combustion engine. And the burning of fossil fuels is synonymous with climate change. The second association can’t be broken, but what about the first? Surprisingly, electric powered cars beat to the start line the first car to run on petrol by half a century. A very basic carriage powered by electricity was invented in the 1830s by Robert Anderson from Scotland. Small-scale, electric powered model vehicles were made even earlier. It wasn’t until half a century later, in 1885, that the German engineer Karl Benz (he of Mercedes Benz) built a car that ran on petrol. Yet, petrol was the fuel that came to dominate the following century as, in rich countries at least, the private motor car was steered into being the dominant mode of transport.
That doesn’t mean other things weren’t tried. Over the years restless inventors and entrepreneurs dabbled with a wide variety of fuels. Even before the first electric car, engineers experimented successfully with steam power, less successfully with hydrogen, and coal gas used in a primitive internal combustion engine. After the Second World War, engineers at the car maker Rover developed the world’s first gas turbine propelled car – called Jet 1. It never went into production however, because the engines were too big and one version, the Rover T3, managed only 13mpg. Sometimes alternatives to petrol have made significant in-roads. Brazil’s production of sugar cane, a legacy of Portuguese colonialism, provided the foundation for a big shift to the biofuel, ethanol, in the 1970s.
But it was the first OPEC oil-shock of 1973 that dramatically accelerated the uptake of ethanol. In Brazil sugar cane was cheap and the distillery industry had spare capacity. It became government policy to phase-out the manufacture of cars running on petrol. As the decision took effect the result was dramatic. In 1979 only 0.5 per cent of cars made ran on ethanol; just seven years later, by 1986, the figure was over 70 per cent and remains so today. Fluctuating prices for both oil and sugar in the intervening years gave ethanol-fuelled vehicles a bumpy ride. But after a dip in the late 1990s and early part of the new millennium, a mixture of concerns, ranging from energy security to the environment and advantageous tax arrangements, saw their triumphant return. The initial primary motive for developing ethanol was energy security but there were environmental benefits. When lead was still common in petrol, there was none in ethanol, which also lacked petrol’s sulphur content and other pollutants. There were lower carbon emissions across ethanol’s overall fuel cycle, although this isn’t universally the case for biofuels in general and is very sensitive to the type of land, how it is managed and what grew there before. More recently, of course, liquid biofuels have become embroiled in controversy to do with the competition between land for growing food for people, and land for growing feedstocks for fuel for vehicles.
But how many are aware of the wilder leaps of imagination some people have made in order to make sure that the wheels on the car keep going round and round? Some of them might make you want to go green, and I don’t mean in an environmental sense. Used nappies anyone, or human fat? Weird but true, these and other raw materials ranging from chocolate to coffee grounds and sawdust, have all been the subject of inventors and innovators exploring alternative fuels to petrol. How so? All these things have ingredients that can be treated to release their energy, and that energy used for propulsion in vehicles.
A company in Canada is building a special plant that will turn all the parts of a used nappy – fibre, plastic and human contribution – into either usable gas, oil or char. Elsewhere, researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK have developed a Formula 3 racing car that uses one-third biofuel made from chocolate residues. What this demonstrates is that pretty much any organic matter can be treated in such a way as to release energy. The challenge is whether it can be done economically, practically and at a scale that makes it useful. Perhaps the oddest and most squeamish innovation of all involves the cosmetic surgeon in Beverly Hills who saved the human fat from 7,000 liposuctions and turned it into fuel for his, and his partners’ cars. In a world in which the number of overweight people roughly equals those who are malnourished, his approach at least shows a responsible attitude towards not wasting a raw material.
But given that the electric car predates the petrol car by so long, why isn’t it further advanced today, given decades of environmental awareness, energy price volatility and concerns about security of supply linked to the geo-politics of oil? The technology and intent for the mass production of electric vehicles has been around at least since 1990 when General Motors announced plans at the Los Angeles Auto Show to turn the Impact concept car into the EV1 production vehicle. Its complex failure probably lost the world two decades in the development of more environmentally- friendly personal transport. What went wrong?
The argument that consumers weren’t ready for cars with a range of 60 to 120 miles didn’t really stand up to the fact that the average American driving commute was only around 30 miles, easily within range. Groups like the Western States Petroleum Association representing the oil industry, lobbied successfully against development of the electric charging infrastructure needed to support electric cars. Others believed that hydrogen fuel cell technology would supercede the technology.
Legislators in California who had pushed ahead with creating the conditions for the electric car made U-turns in response to pressure, and ultimately GM changed its mind. According to the LA Times, in March 2009, GM’s outgoing CEO, Rick Wagner, said his greatest error was ending manufacture of the EV1, and letting go of the company’s early advantage in electric and hybrid vehicle development. Certainly, for a time, the tide in the industry did not flow in an environmental direction. In the US, overall vehicle fuel economy was lower in the year 2000 than it was in 1980. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘Two decades of fuel-saving technologies that could have helped curb CO2 went instead into increasing vehicle weight and performance.’
Fashions in production, the rise and marketing of the SUV, all led to consumer choices drowning out the potential for greener driving. But, even if things had been different and overall vehicle fuel efficiency had improved, in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, the sheer size and growth of the global, petrol fuelled vehicle fleet, would have drowned out any gains in fuel efficiency. As has been said, ‘Our environment does not respond to miles per gallon, it responds to gallons.’ The real challenge is to get fossil fuels out of the fuel tanks of cars. This is the potential of the electric car. But it is not straightforward, and stops short of the full environmental challenge for the car industry.
The first obvious question is: where does the electricity come from to fuel electric cars? How is it generated and what is its carbon foot-print? There’s little to celebrate in having an electric car if, for example, the energy to power it comes from an old, dirty coal-fired power station. All forms of electricity generation, however, have some kind of carbon footprint. Whether this is the embedded carbon in the manufacture of steel for wind turbines, or in the mining and processing of uranium ore, and the construction, decommissioning and waste management necessary for nuclear power generation. True comparisons between different technologies are difficult, however. Virtually no full life cycle assessments have been made for some technologies like nuclear power. And, from an environmental perspective, it would be necessary to compare not just the carbon content of energy generation, but a wide range of other environmental criteria, as well as how much energy you get back for the energy you put in to generate it in the first place – known as the energy return on energy invested. So, for example, while wind and nuclear power, based on imperfect available data, appear among the lowest carbon forms of energy generation (notwithstanding other environmental questions they raise) and may compare roughly in terms of carbon, the energy equation is quite different.
According to a review of over 100 studies, wind power produces 25 times the energy invested to make it work. A similar review of 50 studies revealed nuclear power to produce only 11 times the energy invested. Exactly how green an electric car fleet will be, then, depends to a large degree on the energy mix of the power supply they draw from. There are, though, quite independent benefits. Electric cars help to solve one huge pollution problem by being the clean air alternative when it comes to the chemical cocktail and particulate matter of normal vehicle exhaust fumes.
Yet, as part of a comprehensive shift towards more sustainable mobility, the second (or is that third?) coming of the electric car has an important role to play. New dynamics are emerging all around. In the UK, the number of young people with driving licences has fallen dramatically in the last two decades, suggesting that they are finding other ways to get around, whether walking, cycling or using public transport. At the same time, changed attitudes toward vehicle ownership reveal people to be increasingly less concerned about owning cars outright (their role as a once dominant status symbol appears to have been diluted especially among the young by the rise of other consumer durables like mobile phones) and much more happy to take part in car clubs and flexible leasing initiatives, merely picking up the kind of vehicle they need, when they need it and only for as long as they do. Such developments point the way to a more resource efficient, service driven approach to transport which is about optimising rather than maximising the number of vehicles on the road. That means, the challenge for the electric car is to substitute for, rather than merely add to, the overall car fleet. Also, of course, it’s not enough for a car merely to change its fuel source to lighten its ecological footprint, every bit of the car has a greater or lesser footprint.
But how well is the electric car doing? It could be said that the stage is set. The UK’s official Climate Change Committee believes that electric and hybrid electric vehicles ‘provide the opportunity to decarbonise the road transport sector to very significant extent.’ After the failure of voluntary industry agreements to reduce emissions quickly and far enough, according to the Committee, mandatory average CO2 limits for new cars at the European level being phased in at a modest 130g/km, and to be raised to 95g/km by 2020, should, they hope, encourage the market. Today, as a share of the total number of cars on the road, the number of electric vehicles is statistically negligible. But in a range of scenarios designed by the Climate Change Committee, the most optimistic, that included ‘radical new technology deployment and more significant lifestyle adjustments,’ foresaw electric vehicles taking a 30 per cent share of the small car market by 2022.
Certain things could, of course, change the game for electric cars, such as oil hitting $200 per barrel in the near future, as one report commissioned by the insurers Lloyds and published in association with research group Chatham House, speculated. Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism, perversely, is history. From the Victorians’ ability to lay a whole new regional railway line over the course of a weekend, to the extraordinary, if environmentally damaging, triumph of the road network over rail, and the car over mass transit systems, these all suggest an immense human capacity for change and transition. Now we face possibly humanity’s greatest ever collective challenge: preservation of the relatively stable climatic conditions in which civilisation emerged, as James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, put it. The very least we can do is get things right when we turn our engines on.
Ampera We’re Electric: A Collection of Essays on Electricity was created in collaboration with the Idler. The book costs £12.99 and is available from the Idler's website. For more information on the Vauxhall Ampera, see www.vauxhall-ampera.co.uk
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