Features Australia

No charge in electric cars

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

Imagine ordering a population to evacuate from the path of a hurricane if they only had electric cars to drive. That is one of the scenarios posed to the many acolytes of the new electric car religion that they would prefer not to consider.

As electric car sceptics have pointed out, the ordered evacuation of an estimated 12 million residents of Florida from the path of Hurricane Irma in mid-September would have been all but impossible if the use of electric cars had been widespread.

US Environmental Protection Agency tests on a 2011 model Leaf, still the most widely used electric car, estimated that its actual range in heavy stop-go traffic, typical on refugee-clogged highways, with the air conditioning on, was about 76 kilometres. Once the batteries ran out, all those cars would all have had to be recharged together. Petrol-driven cars have a much longer range and can be refuelled far more quickly, without over-loading the power grid. If there is a spare can of petrol in the back they don’t even have to stop at a petrol station.

That is just the tip of a whole iceberg of problems with electric vehicles, known as EVs, including the difficulties of ramping up production to the levels required, all of which make it hard to take seriously projections that electric vehicles will account for a large slice of the car market by 2040. This has not stopped a whole slew of announcements apparently setting end dates for conventional, petrol-powered cars, but a closer look at the announcements, shows that no-one is placing much faith in all-electric vehicles.

Volvo announced in July that by 2019 none of their new models would be conventional petrol cars, but the company would continue to make those models as well as develop both new hybrid models and electric vehicles. In July, France announced that sales of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040, with the UK making a similar announcement a few days later, but in both cases hybrids will still be allowed.

A similar story can be told for announcements that China and India are also looking at similar bans. The more flexible hybrids will still be permitted.

This is just as well, for electric cars in large enough numbers to make any real difference will require additional power stations, or vast additional capacity in wind generators and PV panels to keep humming along. One estimate by the energy blog Master Resource is that an all-electric UK car fleet would require 39,000 additional wind turbines, as well as upgrades to the power grid.

France is in a better position in that most of its power comes from nuclear power plants, but renewable energy targets and other blunders have made grids in other countries much less reliable. This is probably one of the reasons why electric cars are seldom mentioned in the Australian market, where the grid is struggling to supply existing demand.

There are many other problems. In Europe, only a portion of cars in use are housed in a garage in a detached or semi-detached house where they can be conveniently recharged through the existing network. Many cars belong to flat or apartment dwellers who leave their cars on the street. Charging points would have to be installed.

All this means that the main result of all the hopeful government bans on conventional petrol cars in Europe may well be that consumers will pay a lot more for a hybrid car which they will then treat like a conventional car – never bothering to plug it in, but filling it up when it runs out of petrol.

Then there are the supply side issues. The top-selling Nissan Leaf has total sales of more than 250,000 vehicles world-wide. A site which tracks EV car sales, EVvolumes.com, hopefully estimates total plug-in car sales for 2017 in the US at perhaps 250,000, but that includes very optimistic estimates of sales of the much-publicised Tesla 3 (price $US35,000).

Elon Musk’s Tesla has set a production target of 20,000 vehicles a month by December, with 380,000 consumers having put down a refundable $US1,000 deposit. But another site, InsideEVs, states that just 75 rolled off the assembly line in August, the second month of production, and the company’s other models have been plagued by production problems.

Commentators have also occasionally expressed concern over the production of the Lithium-ion batteries that are the core of the Tesla 3, as they have to be produced in unheard of volumes to meet the company’s production targets. The company has built the Tesla Gigafactory in the middle of the Nevada desert, powered by renewable energy (what else?) and insists that there will be no problem in expanding production.

Whatever the eventual production volumes of the Tesla 3, all of the above sales figures certainly mean that there are a lot more EVs on the road. However, the additional vehicles amount to little beside the total US sales figure of 7.1 million passenger cars for 2016, and just a drop in the ocean compared with the more than 250 million vehicles on American roads, and well over one billion world-wide. EV sales in Australia have been trivial to date.

A great deal could happen in 20 years but electric vehicles still suffer significant disadvantages compared to conventional or hybrid vehicles. The standard-model Tesla 3 has a stated range of 350 kilometres, or about one third of the distance between Sydney and Melbourne, and that range could be considerably reduced by the simple act of turning on the air conditioning. The car may then take at least half an hour if not hours to recharge. In any case, consumers in the US, at least, seem to have rediscovered SUVs and pick-up trucks, thanks to cheaper prices for the despised fossil fuel of petrol.

Wholesale adoption of electric cars will require massive government support, in the face of likely considerable consumer opposition, and if it does happen, as the example of Hurricane Irma shows, governments eventually may regret the change.


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