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Bishop's Stortford Climate Group says electric cars are the only choice for the road ahead

Pics for John Henderson feature on the Nissan Leaf, an electric car.. (6013357)
Pics for John Henderson feature on the Nissan Leaf, an electric car.. (6013357)

Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group member Chris Dunham is a director of Carbon Descent, an environmental consultancy and software company which creates strategies to reduce carbon footprints. Here he dissects the case for electric cars as the town tackles sustainable transport...

Chris Dunham (6013284)
Chris Dunham (6013284)

A recent Car Buyer review of electric cars made the claim “Electric cars aren’t for everyone…” Well, I’ve got news for you, Car Buyer, they literally are.

Across the world, dates have been set for sales of new petrol and diesel cars to be banned. In Norway it’s 2025, in India, the Netherlands and Germany, 2030. The UK date is currently 2040 but it’s 2032 in Scotland, which could create an interesting cross-border dynamic.

I’m willing to bet good money that our 2040 date will be brought forward. Volvo has already said that every vehicle it sells from 2019 will have an electric motor.

The direction of travel is clear: the petrol- or diesel-fuelled engine is dead and the only argument to be had is over the timing.

So, should the good people of Bishop’s Stortford be buying electric cars now? Is it worth it financially? Does it make sense environmentally and can the electricity grid cope? The short answer is: yes, yes and yes!

If you can afford a new car in the £15,000-£30,000 price range there is now no reason to choose anything else. At the bottom end of the price range we have the Renault Zoe. At the top end of that price bracket we have the Kia e-Niro with a range of 300 miles on a single charge. How often do you drive 300 miles without stopping for half an hour somewhere? Range anxiety is a thing of the past and the battery technology is just getting better and better.

So let’s look at the environmental question – are we just moving the emissions from the car exhaust to the chimney of a power station?

The way we generate power has changed dramatically since 1990. Coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fuel, has been replaced by gas and renewables. And in the last few years renewables have begun to replace gas.

All this means that the amount of CO2 per kWh of electricity consumed in 2018 is roughly the same as per kWh of petrol or diesel. So, are we are just moving the problem elsewhere?

No. The efficiency of electric vehicles – despite the extra battery weight – is around three to four times better than petrol or diesel vehicles. Real-world driving tests show that electric cars have an equivalent efficiency of around 170 miles per gallon (mpg). Compare that to real world 35-55 mpg for a petrol car.

So, for every mile you drive in an electric car in the UK you’ll be responsible for roughly for a third to quarter of the emissions of a conventional vehicle. Even better, the emissions from the grid will continue to fall whereas petrol and diesel emissions won’t change.

What about the cost? Well, yes, the purchase cost, after the Government grant, is around £5,000 higher (mainly because of the batteries), but the running costs are a lot lower. Assuming the UK average mileage of 8,000 a year and a real-world petrol car efficiency of 36 mpg (sounds low but a German study found this for cars currently on the road), an electric car will save you over £1,000 a year, giving a payback of under five years. Combine this with some smart charging and a variable electricity tariff like Octopus Agile and you could reduce the payback even further. Imagine paying just £20 a month for fuel!

You might have heard that the Government has cut the grants for electric vehicles in the last month. Well, actually it has removed the grant completely for plug-in hybrids. They’d found that companies were buying these for fleets and then running them entirely on petrol. Just to be clear, everything I’ve said above is about pure electric vehicles which have no ability to use petrol or diesel. And for this type of vehicle the grant has dropped only from £4,500 to £3,500.

Lastly, can the grid cope? Well, if we all bought electric cars and plugged them in to recharge when we get home from work at say 6pm or 7pm then the answer would be no because our electricity demand is at its peak around that time. The transformers and cables in the road that carry electricity to our homes may not be big enough to cope. We therefore need to delay the charging to start a little later.

This can all be done with an app, so you’ll plug in when you get home but the app will automatically delay the charging until the appropriate time. The car will charge slowly overnight when demand is low anyway. When we get more wind and solar on the grid there will probably be incentives to schedule our charging to coincide with the windiest or sunniest periods.

So looked at financially, environmentally and technically, electric cars are the right choice. We would like to see people in Bishop's Stortford pledging that their next car will be a pure battery electric vehicle. But does that mean we can then forget about walking and cycling? Electric cars will be quieter and emit no pollution from their exhausts – they don’t have one.

However, sadly, electric cars will not solve the problem of congestion in a growing town like Bishop's Stortford. They won’t provide the same health benefits as the gentle exercise provided by walking and cycling. Nor will they make our streets safer.

Besides having fewer car accidents, research shows communities with high levels of walking and cycling enjoy lower levels of crime – pedestrians and cyclists deter muggings and break-ins. So, yes, we still need measures to encourage walking and cycling – more dedicated cycle paths, cycle parking, wider pavements and more priority for cyclists and walkers to name a few. Anyone who has cycled around the town or taken their life in their hands trying to squeeze along the pavement over Station Road bridge will know investment in this area is sorely needed.

What should the council(s) be doing to encourage electric cars? A recent post on the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation Facebook page showed a Stortford resident running an extension cable across the street from their house to charge their electric car at night.

Clearly, in streets where residents don’t have off-street parking, there is a need for on-street car chargers. These could be fitted to lampposts or be provided as stand-alone chargers. The Government is offering grants to councils to install these and East Herts should get on and apply for this.

Presumably, streets with only on-street parking could be identified and installation could be co-ordinated with residents – and planning officers need to make sure that new developments have charging facilities from the outset.

Perhaps this could be tied in with an incentive to make the switch and co-ordinated with car dealerships around the town. Differential car parking charges with lower rates for electric vehicles is one possible incentive.

There are a number of policies in East Herts’ air pollution strategy to encourage electric vehicles, but we need more and faster if we’re going to tackle the urgent challenges we face in terms of climate change and air pollution.

But from our side as citizens, we need to show willing and make our next car an all-electric one.

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