Rhodri Thomas, Sustainability Consultant for Cynnal Cymru, shares his views on what he learnt at the Green Fleet Cymru event at Cardiff City Stadium on the 21st June. Read the views of industry experts, UK and Welsh government officials and Rhodri’s startling conclusion!
On the 21st June I attended a very interesting event at the Cardiff City Stadium at which a range of electric vehicles were on display and available for test drive. This gave me the opportunity to drive an electric car for the first time. I can report that it is a very satisfying experience. There is tremendous acceleratory power which is perhaps the most surprising thing – as you increase the flow of electrons, you are pushed back in your seat! Then there is the silence… which is a bit unnerving especially when pedestrians are clearly unaware of your presence.
Prior to all the fun of the vehicle inspection and test drive, there were a range of presentations. The two headline speakers were Jonathan Oates of the Welsh Government and Juhi Verma from the Office of Low Emission Vehicles. The speakers were compered by BBC motoring journalist Quentin Wilson, a former presenter of Top Gear and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable advocate of electric cars.
Here is a summary of what I learnt during the day:
Electric vehicle sales are now rising rapidly across the world. There has been an 11% rise in the UK (April 2018) with about half of new vehicle registrations in Norway as electric and a 154% annual increase in China. Plug-in hybrid vehicles accounted for 71% of the UK sales. This perhaps illustrates a residual anxiety amongst British drivers about the availability of charge points. Amongst the manufacturers, Toyota in particular argue strongly that for now, hybrid engines are a natural progression. If I was a fleet manager, I would buy or lease full electric. Clime change is such a critical issue that we can not afford to hedge, but must make bold decisions and leap-frog technologies to a low carbon future.
A key consideration in developing an electric vehicle economy is the efficiency and environmental impact of batteries. It appears that modern batteries are far more resilient than people think and as battery technology continues to develop, with the potential for things like graphene batteries, the raw materials can remain in circulation for far longer. Battery life continues to grow. Quentin Wilson exhorted the audience to see battery technology as an economic opportunity for Wales. He urged us to make Wales “the epicentre for UK battery manufacture”, and linked the fact of a strong existing automotive industry in Wales with the country’s wealth of renewable energy sources. He pointed out that fossil fuel use equates to an annual loss of money from the Welsh economy – a linear process. Electrons, derived from community and publicly owned turbines and solar panels however, circulating within Wales, would add considerable value to the economy. If the current motor manufacturing industry could also shift production to electric vehicle components, and if renewable energy could be harnessed, the Welsh economy had “infinite possibilities.”
Mr. Wilson acknowledged the criticism that Wales is behind the pace of the rest of the UK when it comes to electric vehicle infrastructure. He pointed out however that this could be turned to our advantage. “Electrification of transport is coming like a freight train and Wales needs to be ready,” he said. Referring to charging infrastructure, he said “Local Authorities here can avoid the mistakes made by English authorities and learn from them”. With a paucity of chargers across the land, we could install the latest generation of rapid chargers. Cenin Renewables in Bridgend was cited as an example of the direction Welsh business could go in; local entrepreneurs developing infrastructure that captures renewable energy from nature and facilitates its flow to local users via rapid chargers. Quentin Wilson urged the delegates from local authorities to argue the case with colleagues for their authority investing in renewables and rapid charge infrastructure. Twenty two local authorities could equate to twenty local renewable energy grids feeding dozens of rapid chargers in each area.
Jonathan Oates reinforced these arguments by pointing out that the Wellbeing of Future Generation Act, the Environment Act and the new Economic Strategy provide a legislative architecture upon which to build a low carbon economy. Government strategy creates an imperative in Wales for business to rapidly embrace low carbon technology and for entrepreneurs and innovators to seize the opportunities available. Juhi Verma endorsed this and encouraged people to use the expertise and funding available from the Office of Low Emission Vehicles. Jon Oates claimed that £10 billion of value leaves the Welsh economy each year and that the current government is committed to stemming this flow. He agreed with Quentin Wilson that electric vehicles offer an amazing opportunity although their growth must be managed with a repurposing of the significant automotive sector that for years has evolved to meet the needs of fossil fuel cars.
Some of the manufacturers and trade bodies present updated us on how the motor industry is approaching the practicality of the low carbon economy. We were told about EV100 – a global initiative bringing together forward looking companies committed to accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and making electric transport the new normal by 2030. This initiative recognises the fact that businesses own over half of all registered vehicles: through their fleet management and leasing, they can have a major impact on carbon emissions and influence millions of people across the world. Lease Plan aim to achieve net zero emissions from the whole fleet of leased vehicles by 2030. BMW have achieved a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions with 63% of the energy used to build their latest electric models sourced from renewables. Toyota have addressed their supply chain and distribution patterns to reduce emissions and have calculated that as of January 31, 2017, the use of Toyota hybrid vehicles worldwide, in lieu of conventional vehicles of similar size and driving performance, has resulted in approximately 77 million fewer tons of CO2 emissions. The company is aiming for a net zero carbon emissions profile by 2050 across all its activities. The Toyota factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire has 17,000 solar panels and the company target is to use the energy generated by these to make seven thousand cars each year.
Some readers may be wondering where hydrogen is in all this. It was mentioned particularly in the context of heavier vehicles but with several large payload electric vans on display, companies may opt for electric now and hydrogen later. The cost of the vans however may well be prohibitive and at least one public body I spoke to confirmed that while there was nothing wrong with the vehicle, they could not meet the asking price. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Welsh Government to work with OLEV and negotiate favourable loans for public bodies seeking to replace their fleet? Interestingly, Swansea Council has made a major financial commitment and purchased a number of electric vans. This bold move was demanded by the political leadership. Someone should conduct some research into voter support for this type of use of public money. The results may embolden others around the country.
Having listened to the talks, attended break-out groups and driven the Renault Zoe, new Toyota Prius and the Nissan Leaf, these were my conclusions.
Electric vehicles are exciting and definitely offer a palliative for carbon emissions, especially if they are powered by electrons derived from the flow of wind, water and solar photons. By switching their fleets, businesses can make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions – see EV100!
To me, EVs don’t yet feel like a solution for hard rural transport or transporting tents and mountain bikes to the far flung corners of the UK. For that I’d be tempted to buy a hybrid van. Overall however, I just feel that electric cars replace one set of high impact, resource hungry material expressions of personal aspiration and vanity with another set of slightly less damaging ones. They do nothing to alleviate congestion. I found myself questioning if I even need to own a car. My resolution from the day was to go and open a spread sheet and calculate how use of a car club and the occasional car hire would compare to running a 2011 diesel into the ground. On carbon emissions and air quality it would of course be an instant win but I also suspect it may save me money. Ultimately, it involves a major shift in behaviour and that’s what all of Sustainable Development comes down to – can we change our lifestyle patterns? Is convenience in our lifetime worth the debt we pass on to our children and grandchildren, knowing that while we luxuriate, they will suffer the agonies of a collapsing economy – the inevitable consequence of an eroding global ecosystem?
There’s a saying doing the rounds that “your/my next car will be electric!” Well for me, there won’t be a next car. I don’t know how I am going to do it, but I at least have made that decision.
To find out more about electric vehicles and the alternatives available, visit these websites and tell us if you decide to make changes either as an individual driver or as a fleet manager!