Today the Telegraph published an opinion piece I wrote on electric cars, linked here. My sources for the article are listed at the bottom of this post.
Of course, this is an opinion piece for a newspaper, so it’s written in a particular way – some people have commented negatively on this, but opinion columns are supposed to be opinionated!
When I first wrote about EVs in the first year of my blog, I was quite interested in the wider possibilities, in particular the use of re-cycled batteries for storage and the nascent V2G space (use of electric cars to provide grid services, “vehicle-to-grid”). Since then, I have got a lot less interested. In my previous Telegraph article, I discussed the limitations of hydrogen as a key enabler of net zero, it’s main benefit being the fact that it burns in air without giving off caron dioxide. The popularity of EVs has similar origins – no tailpipe emissions. But this does not make them “clean” or sustainable, as I outline in the article above.
That deals just with the limitations of EVs on a stand-alone basis. But there are other challenges: in particular the need to build new electricity grid infrastructure, and the issue with battery safety and disposal. The widely touted benefits of V2G are far from apparent, and yet to be captured in real-world settings.
Extensive charging and grid infrastructure required to support EVs
EV charging infrastructure is currently limited, and drivers report frequent problems with charging points either being occupied or faulty meaning they cannot charge when they need to. Even with fast charging, EV charging takes longer than it does to fill a petrol or diesel tank, and some parts of the country still have limited coverage, particularly in rural areas. Other issues drivers face relate to lack of interoperability between various apps and payment methods.
As of 1 July 2023, there were 44,020 public EV charging devices installed in the UK, within which 8,461 were rated “rapid” devices (19% of all charging devices), and 24,918 (57%) were rated “fast” chargers (“rapid” chargers are faster than “fast” chargers). 21,294 (48%) were designated as “destination” chargers, while 14,848 (34%) were designated as “on street” chargers. The total number of chargers increased by 10% between 1 April and 1 July 2023. It’s difficult to get a good picture of the location of these chargers – the Government acknowledges data uncertainty, but it also reports on a local authority basis – some authorities cover wide geographic areas with low populations, making it appear they have a proportionally high number of charging points. However it is likely they are concentrated in populated areas with wide areas having low coverage.
Installation of charging points is just one issue. Significant challenges relate to supplying those points requiring both additional generating capacity and network infrastructure. The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget Report in 2021 estimated that electric cars and vans could increase electricity demand by around 30 TWh by 2030, and 65-100 TWh by 2050. This compares to a system-wide electricity demand of 300 TWh today (projected to double or even treble by 2050). According to DESNZ and Ofgem, the electricity requirement for an electric vehicle is “almost three quarters of today’s typical household consumption”.
Ofgem in particular is pushing smart charging, in the belief that EVs will be a net benefit rather than net drain on the grid. However, this relies on untested assumptions about charging behaviour – will people charge their electric cars on a just-in-time basis similar to the way that conventional cars are fuelled, or will they treat them more like mobile phones and expect full charge ahead of each use? The latter could place considerable strain on electricity grids, particularly if owners try to charge their cars as soon as they come home from work, during the evening peak of electricity demand.
EVs have the potential to deliver significant benefits through V2G services, but they also have the potential to boost peak demand – which way things will work out is still unclear. Much will depend on whether the public trusts smart charging devices, and their providers – if not they will over-ride the smart features and activate on-demand charging. In this respect both Ofgem and the Government are somewhat shooting themselves in the foot by continually undermining public trust in suppliers, the very people who are likely to deliver these smart charging services.
Another problem relates to legacy looped grid connections. Historically, semi-detached properties shared a single grid connection with one house being connected to the grid via its connection to its neighbour. This is known as a looped connection. Electric car chargers require a 32 amp fuse and a lot of power to operate at their optimum level – DNOs will not allow an EV charge point to be installed onto a looped electricity connection, so a direct connection must first be installed. DNOs are gradually replacing looped systems anyway, but his will take time. In the meantime, households on looped systems will need either their own or their neighbours driveways or gardens to be dug up to accommodate a direct connection before an EV charger can be used.
Electric car battery safety and disposal
Two years ago, General Motors was forced to recall 140,000 of its electric Bolt model after a series of fires when drivers left their cars charging overnight. More recently, a fire which broke out on a cargo ship in the North Sea was attributed to an electric car – whether this turns out to have been the case or not, the fact remains that tackling EV fires is challenging. Firefighters have found that battery fires can reignite because self-oxidising lithium salts prevent them from being starved out. Extinguishing them can take thousands of gallons of water, far more than is needed to put out a fire in a conventional car. Such fires on a cargo ship are very difficult to contain. And cars are not the only source of problems with electric vehicles – electric scooters and bicycles have been linked to a number of deadly house fires, and are banned on public transport in places such as London.
While it is unclear whether EVs have a higher propensity to catch fire than an ICE car, it is not in doubt that they are harder to manage when they do happen, and present significant challenges. One problem with domestic EV fires is that isolation switches are not accessible making it difficult for firefighters to tackle them it being dangerous to spray water on fires involving a mains electricity connection – this is made even more hazardous if the home also has solar panels as evidenced by this serious incident in Germany last year.
While fire risks can be mitigated through the introduction of improved safety measures, the issue of battery disposal is more challenging (although this is also a cause of fires at waste management facilities). Lithium-ion batteries are toxic, and their fire risk increases when they are stored together, which is often the case when they are removed from cars at the end of their lives.
In theory recycled materials could supply more than half of the cobalt, lithium, and nickel in new batteries by 2040. However, unlike the batteries in ICE cars which can easily be dismantled, EV batteries are hard to recycle, and extracting their minerals is difficult, inefficient, expensive, and not particularly clean. Pyrometallurgy, the process used by many recyclers, involves melting down the batteries and burning off plastic separators to extract the metals. This process is energy-intensive, emits toxic gases and can’t recover some valuable minerals, including lithium, at all. A major expense in this process is transporting the batteries to the recycling facility – according to a recent study, about 40% of the overall cost of recycling is transportation.
EV battery packs are so massive they need to be shipped by truck in specially designed cases, often across very large distances, to reach centralised recycling facilities. Handling lithium-ion batteries is so demanding that dealerships generally ship the entire car to the recycling site rather than trying to extract the battery themselves, in other words shipping something four times heavier than needed. These handling costs are large enough to exceed the cost of mining fresh minerals for the production of new batteries – by one estimate, the cost of recycled lithium is five times that of virgin lithium from brine-mining.
“Lithium-ion battery makers have yet to develop the technology that can economically extract components in a form that can be used to make new lithium-ion batteries,”
– Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International
These costs, and the fact that most waste disposal facilities will not accept batteries due to the fire risk, increase the likelihood of illegal dumping of batteries, creating greater environmental challenges given their toxicity. Steps by Tesla and others to remove cobalt from EV batteries to make them cheaper also make them less appealing to recyclers. In any case, the UK does not currently have any plant for disposing of electric vehicle batteries, and there is only one plant capable of processing lithium-ion batteries in continental Europe.
As one commentor wrote under the Telegraph article, EVs are most suited to situations where there are better alternatives and in particular public transport: short urban journeys. Given the energy intensity and material requirements of new EVs, the most sustainable option is to keep using existing cars until they fall apart – scrapping anything that is functional should have a high hurdle rate. For people who have low mileage, they may never drive enough to exceed the EV/ICE breakeven level, and so are actually better off driving conventional cars. For people who drive high mileage the question is why, and whether they could reduce this by combining public transport with the journey – when I travel to London I drive to the nearest mainline station and then take the train. Both of these undermine the need for electric cars.
It would be better to develop cleaner ICE cars for example using different fuel types, rather than switching to electric cars, however the current drive for EVs is undermining research and innovation in that space, since the investment case is unclear while governments push for EVs. This further enrenches what is a clearly sub-optimal solution. While governments are currenly nervous about a whole-hearted focus on hydrogen, they have shown no such reticence in the area of electric cars, something they may well come to regret.
Telegraph article references