We’re seeing enthusiasm everywhere for electric cars, with government subsidies being directed both at buyers and manufacturers. The attractions seem to be obvious – clean, emission free transport, seemingly resolving effortlessly the conflict between people’s desire for personal mobility and our need to move to a lower carbon energy economy. Widespread use of electric cars, though, simply moves the energy problem out of sight – from the petrol station and exhaust pipe to the power station. A remarkably clear opinion piece in today’s Financial Times, by Richard Pike, of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, poses the problem in numbers.
The first question we have to ask, is how does the energy efficiency of electric cars compare to cars powered by internal combustion engines? Electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines, but a fair comparison has to take into account the losses incurred in generating and transmitting the electricity. Pike’s cites figures that show the comparison is actually surprisingly close. Petrol engines, on average, have an overall efficiency of 32%, whereas the much more efficient Diesel engine converts 45% of the energy in the fuel into useful output. Conversion efficiencies in power stations, on the other hand, come in at a bit more than 40%; add to this a transmission loss getting from the power station to the plug and a further loss from the charging/discharging cycle in the batteries and you end up with an overall efficiency of about 31%. So, on pure efficiency grounds, electric cars do worse than either petrol or diesel vehicles. One further factor needs to be taken into account, though – that’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per Joule of energy supplied from different fuels. Clearly, if all our electricity was generated by nuclear power or by solar photovoltaics, the advantages of electric cars would be compelling, but if it all came from coal-fired power stations this would make the situation substantially worse. With the current mix of energy sources in the UK, Pike estimates a small advantage for electric cars, with an overall potental reduction of emissions of one seventh. I don’t know the corresponding figures for other countries; presumably given France’s high proportion of nuclear the advantage of electric cars there would be much greater, while in the USA, given the importance of coal, things may be somewhat worse.
Pike’s conclusion is that the emphasis on electric cars is misplaced, and the subsidy money would be better off spent on R&D on renewable energy and carbon capture. The counter-argument would be that a push for electric cars now won’t make a serious difference to patterns of energy use for ten or twenty years, given the inertia attached to the current installed base of conventional cars and the plant to manufacture them, but is necessary to begin the process of changing that. In the meantime, one should be pursuing low carbon routes to electricity generation, whether nuclear, renewable, or coal with carbon capture. It would be comforting to think that this is what will happen, but we shall see.