Greening the car: can we really do it?

| 17th December 2012

Infrastructure for electric vehicles is expanding fast; there are now 857 charge points in London alone.

Motorists have been slow to embrace electric vehicles, but gradually they are starting to find their way onto the roads. Gavin Haines asks whether battery powered cars have finally turned a corner or whether their unpopularity thus far is surpassed only by their disappointing eco credentials?
The quest for truly green motoring remains an elusive one but there are now some reasons to be optimistic

Before we talk green motoring, I want to start with a bit of myth busting. Let’s vanquish some untruths about battery powered vehicles, starting with speed and what everyone really wants to know which is: Are they slow? 

It’s a relevant question because sluggish sales of electric cars have been partially attributed to the misconception that they drive like a milk float. Yet, there are some electric vehicle manufacturers out there producing cars with Ferrari-rivalling performance. The Telsa Roadster is currently the world’s fastest electric car, achieving 0-60mph in an impressive 3.9 seconds – (take that internal combustion engine!) 

That’s all very well, you might say, but don't electric cars run out of juice just 50 miles from home? Well, that was once the case, but things have changed. The Nissan Leaf, World Car of the Year 2011, is fully electric and has a range of 109 miles, which is actually much more than the average car journey in the UK, which, according to the Department for Transport, is just seven miles.   

But what if you do want to travel further; Britain barely has any charging points, right? Wrong. The supporting infrastructure for electric vehicles is expanding fast; in January this year Source London had just 263 charge points in the capital and but boasts a whopping 857, with another 500 set to open in 2013. And it’s not just London which can now charge your electric car; there are an estimated 7,500 charging points across the UK, which help power the approx 70,000 electric cars on our roads.  

“Three years ago it was hard to find charging points but there are now lots being installed, mainly in car parks,” confirms Neil Hutch, from Wimborne, Dorset, who converted his MGF roadster to run on batteries in 2009. “Electric car drivers can charge and park their vehicles for free in the car park I use, so I actually make a profit by driving to work.” 

So is owning an electric car cheaper then? Well, running costs are extremely low; battery powered vehicles are tax exempt, can often park for free and cost as little as 2p per mile to run. However, the up-front costs are a huge obstacle for many motorists; Nissan’s brand new, all-electric Leaf, for instance,  starts at £25,990, while its dinosaur-juice drinking equivalent, the Ford Focus, costs just £13,995.

The quest for truly green motoring remains an elusive one but there are now some reasons to be optimistic

But it’s all for a good cause, right? I mean, electric cars are environmentally friendly, aren’t they? Er..not necessarily. While battery powered vehicles have become a key component in the British Government’s drive to cut emissions, some research suggests that they might not be as green as they seem.

Green credentials

There’s no doubting that running an electric vehicle is less energy intensive than running a petrol or diesel equivalent. A recent study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology claimed that even with Europe’s current mixture of electricity sources, which is heavily reliant on the burning of fossil fuels, electric cars represent a 10-24 per cent decrease in “global warming potential, relative to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles, assuming lifetimes of 150,000km.” Given the EU targets for renewable energy production, running an electric car is only likely to become greener in the coming years.

The trouble is, while battery powered vehicles are greener once they’re on the road, getting them there in the first place is far from environmentally friendly. Research has revealed that the exploitation and manipulation of precious metals, such as lithium, which are required to manufacture electric cars, could put a strain on our natural resources, environment and even human health. 

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology claims electric vehicles “exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the supply chain.”

These fears are echoed by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), which compared the environmental impacts of electric and diesel cars. “Electric vehicles have proven to be beneficial in terms of mitigating the climate change impacts of personal mobility,” says the report. “In contrast, electric passenger cars cause higher impacts on human health and ecosystems compared to conventional cars.”

Although the quest for truly green motoring remains an elusive one, there are reasons to be optimistic. Both reports suggest improvements and technological advances in the production and recycling of vehicle cars could help assuage these ecological impacts and improve their eco credentials. But environmentalists themselves still warn against seeing electric vehicles as a transport panacea.;

“We need to plan our way out of car dependency by ensuring people can access services and travel to work without having to drive,” says Andrew Pendleton, for Friends of the Earth. “At the moment, with the 3p rise in fuel duty being withheld and fares rising, things are clearly going in the wrong direction.”

Another “green innovation” with side-effects… 

As The Ecologist reported last year, the EU has set targets for 10 per cent of all transport fuels to come from renewable sources by 2020. This sounds great, except much of that will come from palm oil plantations which are a leading cause of deforestation in nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia. What’s more, the cultivation of bio-fuels is already putting pressure on agriculture at a time when food prices continue to spike and there are ever more mouths to feed.

If this subject interests you take a look at a new online show called Fully Charged, which includes reviews and test-driving of electric cars, as well as exploring questions about the future of the technology. The Show is now in its second series and is already live on YouTube at:

Gavin Haines is a freelance journalist. Follow him: @gavin_haines

*Image courtesy of


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