The electric delusion

By Rob Leach

With the UK planning to ban petrol and diesel cars in 2040, an electric future has always seemed a predictable one. But as I note below, there are massive roadblocks ahead.

First, the positive news. Whether it takes years or decades to move across to a driverless world, their powertrains will not be driven by diesel or petrol. Today’s hybrids and plug in hybrids will inevitably give way to full electric.

Two thirds of motorists own or are open to owning an electric or hybrid car[1]. A new report[2] states that 60 percent of all vehicles on the road might be electric by 2030. By mid century, we’ll have said goodbye to the combustion engine, for the simple reason that it pollutes our planet. No greenhouse gases. No particulates. No Nitrous oxide.

No problem.

But there is a problem. Or rather three problems. Big ones.

The first is the most obvious: the cost of the charging infrastructure – and the cars.

There are still only tens of thousands of charging locations across Europe. BMW Group, Daimler AG, Ford, and Volkswagen are creating a network of high-speed charging stations for electric vehicles across Europe[3], but they use one charging standard whilst Nissan, Toyota and Honda use a different one. Tesla has its own standard.

Yet this is a short-term issue. Standards will be unified in time. Electric will accelerate once range anxiety is overcome.

Ditto the cost of electric cars. They are prohibitively expensive, even with grants taken into account. Consumers and nations face the usual chicken and egg situation. Costs will come down with volume, but volume is precluded by high costs.

Again, this will be resolved and a tipping point will be reached.

More concerning is problem number two: the fact that electric cars do more damage to the planet than conventional ones. Yes, you read that right. An electric vehicle’s impact on global warming can be twice that of a conventional car[4].

Producing the batteries for an electric vehicle is as costly to the environment as producing an entire conventional car[5]. That’s because lithium battery technology uses rare materials like cobalt and nickel – which are difficult and often unethical to source, harmful to the environment and dangerous to humans. They are also hard to recycle (lithium costs five electric vehicles have up to 24% less global warming potential impact throughout their lives on the road than petrol cars. But that assumes a generous 150,000km lifespan – and barely compensates for the impact of production.

The third cautionary factor is the environmental price of generating the electricity in the first place. There is a perception that electric power is clean by definition. In reality, it is only as clean as its source. More than 40% of the world’s electricity comes from burning coal, and even in California, 60% of electricity in 2015 came from burning fossil fuels[6].

Blessed with clean hydroelectricity Norway is leading the world in electric infrastructure. However, even its own scientists have acknowledged that in some circumstances electric cars can have a greater impact on global warming than conventional cars[7]. As one of the authors said: “what will make [the electric car] a success or a failure is how much we can clean up our electricity grid.”

So, what can we conclude?

Making an electric car today is more harmful to the environment than manufacturing a conventional car. Driving it is only clean if the electricity is produced cleanly. So yes, we are heading towards an electric future – but we have a lot of work to do to make it as clean as we’d like it to be.



[1] SPA Future Thinking



[4] ibid

[5] Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology

[6] The Guardian 8 dec 206

[7] Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2012 Report, quoted in