If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 21 March 2011

Electric cars - the sinister truth

I have no urgent desire to own an electric car. Heavy, with a range of about 100 miles, and taking anything up to a day to recharge, one would be no use to me. For short local runs, I use the bike 95% of the time, and I like the fact that my car (a Ford Mondeo estate) has a range of nearly 600 miles with a full tank. If I need to be at the other end of the country urgently, no problem. I turn the key and go. And, more importantly, if I run out before I get home, it takes less than five minutes to replenish my car with another 600 miles' worth - and that includes getting a sarnie and a bar of chocolate for the driver. Can you imagine driving from Bristol to Newcastle to see someone who is seriously ill, and having to wait for six hours in Birmingham to get the car charged up? (There are ways round this, like an exchange system similar to what we do with gas bottles, but nothing is easier than a splash'n'dash.) An electric car would fit into my life in a space where there are already two motorbikes, and I would still need a proper car for long, boring journeys or where I need to haul a load.

No other fuel comes close to the energy-density, portability and easy storage of petrol and diesel. Battery technology will have to come a long way before the electric car has anything like the utility of a conventional combustion-engined car. That's before you consider the cost of replacing the batteries. Some experts give the battery life as two to three years, and the replacement cost at somewhere upwards of £600 to £1000. Look out for a lot of very cheap 3-year-old cars that the owners can't afford to maintain, and a lot of very unhappy motorists who bought into the 'saving the planet' stuff. The cars are not cheap, either: the Mitsubishi i-MiEV comes with a price tag of around £30,000, and that's for something as big as a Smart car with a piddling range of 75 miles. Free road tax and an exemption from the Congestion Charge is small recompense.

Not for me just yet, thanks. I am not against the principle of electric power (although the argument that they are 'pollution-free' is risible). We have a fleet of golf buggies where I work, and for short-distance pick-up-and-forget journeys they are ideal. They are even quite good fun to drive, for limited values of 'fun' - I got one sideways on ice in December, and I was reasonably entertained for a few seconds. And the recent ZeroTT race in 2010 on the Isle of Man showed that electric bikes needn't be slow and worthy, lapping at almost 100 mph. I guess my feelings about electric vehicles are fairly neutral, if that isn't the worst pun you are going to read today.

Until I read this on Subrosa's blog.

The Government is pushing electric cars with a £5000 grant (of my money, I will have you know), and it seems a lot of Scottish local authorities are buying into the idea with electric cars for staff (didn't you know it?) and pledges of millions of charging points. But it's Friends of the Earth's response that has got me worried. Here's Beth Stratford, FoE Scotland's Energy Campaigner:
"A less obvious benefit is that electric vehicles can help smooth out the peaks and troughs in demand for electricity.

If demand is high then the charging process could be deferred for several hours, and with expected improvements in battery technology, it will be possible for energy to be drawn from the batteries to help cope with temporary shortages of generation.”

Yes, you read that right. They want to be able to 'defer' the charging process if there is high demand for electricity. So you come in from work, and plug the car in ready for tomorrow. But that evening the weather is cold and there is a big football match. Demand for electricity is unusually high, so your charging is 'deferred'. And when you try to go to work in the morning ... nothing. I wonder if they will pay you the wages you lost by not being at work that day?

The energy companies (those charming people who will 'give' you light-bulbs paid for out of your increased bills to meet 'green' targets) will have the right to decide if and when you will be able to travel in your own car.

And worse. Did you see that about "it will be possible for energy to be drawn from the batteries to help cope with temporary shortages of generation"? So you plug it in, hoping to top up a half-discharged vehicle, and instead you find that your batteries have been flattened because there were 'temporary shortages of generation'. Everybody else has had your electricity. You want to get to work, or go shopping, or visit Granny? Tough. The community's needs are more important than yours. Of course, the rational thing to do would be to keep an eye on the charge/discharge state, and disconnect if they try to take it back. So what's the betting that, in time, it will become compulsory to leave your car connected to the grid so that the 'community' can have the benefit of your nasty, privately-hoarded electricity? Disconnecting your car from the People's Communal Shared Energy Resource? Six months, and an ASBO.

Ironically, it is only if we followed the Green plans for renewable, sustainable, intermittent and unreliable energy that such a thing would even be necessary. They really do want to take us back to the Dark Ages.


  1. "They really do want to take us back to the Dark Ages."

    'Take' implies that they will make the same journey. I don't think that's what they have planned for themselves, only for the rest of us!

  2. An excellent summary. The principle of electric cars is fine, the actuality is rubbish.

    A point that I've never seen addressed, what about the heater? Existing cars use waste heat, but electric cars don't have any, and they can't spare any battery power for electric heating. Those who have driven in winter in a car with a dud heater will understand the problem. It's a serious one.

  3. it takes less than five minutes to replenish my car with another 600 miles' worth

    Which is why comparing the range of an electric car with that of an internal combustion engined car is always meaningless; the true effective range of an IC-engined car is the distance between essential servicing work.

    As regards the main point, I think the greenies are aiming less at the dark ages, more at a socialist paradise.

  4. Julia - good point. Take ^H^H^H^H Send.

    Zaphod - I have seen mention of electric cars with (presumably electric) heaters. I can only assume that the electricity usage is trivial compared to that required for motion. Mind you, Eberspacher do some handy diesel cab heaters that the truckers and overlanders love. Very economical on diesel, fuel readily available, cheap, and ... hang on ...

    Nikos - I always say that you have never been cold until you have been cold on a motorbike. Thermal underwear will do for most bike journeys, so I can't see why our green four-wheeled 'friends' can't share some of the joy.

    patently - between services, good point. Hadn't thought of it like that.

    Range needn't be a problem, if there were an equivalent infrastructure to cope. Drive up to the 'battery station', take out existing batteries and replace with fresh (may need a fork-lift) and you're on your way. Devising a way of only paying for the charge used (unlike gas bottles) will be a challenge, and it will never be as easy as sticking a nozzle in the tank and whistling for two minutes, but it's not impossible.

    It's just that, with small cars able to cover 60-70 miles and rising on a gallon of diesel and with almost no emissions, why are we bothering? Is it a religious thing, like climate change?

  5. "temporary shortages of generation" = wind turbines.
    Battery switch stations in Israel. They are also planned for Denmark and Hawaii. But still very expensive - both initial costs and battery rental.
    Given that cars are only used for something like 4% of the time, a very cunning shared ownership/usage scheme in cities combined with ultra-efficent engine technology would be my best option rare than milk floats. Swedish wood pellet fired Stirling engine car technology here.

  6. Useful information Brian, and thanks.

    I rather fancy that biomass car. We have a biomass heating plant at work, and it smells lovely (and works well, too). I could only support a move to biofuels if they are products that would otherwise go to waste, though. Giving over agricultural land which might otherwise feed people so that a few Islingtonites can feel better about driving a 4x4 is not very ethical, in my opinion.

    But I'd have a Bioracer tomorrow!

  7. I saw more details of this in a PDF I downloaded from a link recently. The authors had spent a considerable amount of time showing how the ENTIRE PLANET could be run with renewable energy by 2050!!!

    Unfortunately it would need some 4 million wind turbines (twice the size of present ones), nearly 100,000 large scale solar plants, over a BILLION domestic solar installations, and all sorts of other stuff. It would also require a world wide grid of superconducting cables to balance things out, as well as the all electric vehicle fleet available to help with peak demand....

    Completely barmy, but if you want to do your head in, download and read the 2 parts here:




    And using electric heaters in cars is a nonstarter (literally!). Those who have in cold places such as much of North America at the moment, have found drastically reduced range - reports of 100 miles being reduced to under 20 are commonplace. As you say a diesel fuelled heater has to be the only practical answer.

    And a new danger is drivers constantly monitoring the "fuel" gauge instead of watching the road...

  8. Hehe, I hadn't even considered the 'cold battery' effect. Warming it up under your armpit is not really an option, is it?

  9. Neither is having battery changing stations all over the place. The sheer cost and the inevitable variation in size, shape & capacity between manufacturers means, that this will never be a replacement for conventional fuel stations.

    There is some talk of "ultra capacitors" which may be the answer to storing more energy and much faster charge times, BUT this will require some very serious infrastructure to provide the enormous currents required.

  10. I've just read through the comments on a thread at Bishop Hill, and found this link to a map of a proposed "Supergrid". Have a look and then consider the political ramifications of the countries to the South of it....


  11. If we do go down the battery route, then standardisation will be inevitable. It would be unthinkable to rock up to a service station and ask for a battery set for a Ford e-Muesli to be told "sorry, we're out of stock of those, can you come back on Monday?" There would have to be a system like the Calor Gas bottle exchange, with universal sizes and connectors, and that would mean - you guessed it - more regulation.

    And you couldn't syphon some out of your mate's car to get you home, either.

  12. And we think it's bad that Gadaffi has the key to the oil supply!

  13. Heaters in electric cars use a sizeable proportion of the battery-stored energy, and so reduce range considerably.

    The power used for motion is reconverted back to 'leccy during braking; & then re-used. No so with the heating.

    Other 'little' uses such as windscreen wipers, heated rear window & radio all take their toll.

    I suspect they'll know 30% - 50% off the quoted 'range', depending upon how cold it is outside.

    Anyone fancy trunlding along a motorway in cold damp weather in one?

  14. So, there you are on the M1. You have just enough charge to get to your destination (you think), but you turn off the heater and wipers just to be sure, and drive along in a cold car with rainy, misted-up windows because you can't be sure you will get there otherwise. Of course, that won't be allowed to happen. A proportion of the available charge will be artificially cordoned-off to allow for this, so you won't ever get what they claim to be the range in any case.

    The more I think about it, the more I think it's a blind alley, at least until battery technology is 1000% better.

    Never mind the saving-the-planet lithium. Green technology was always more about feeling good than making the world better.

  15. Every trip will be like Apollo 13's return.

  16. But with less chance of landing in the Pacific.


  17. Hmmm, I would suggest that using the heat generated when braking to store in a core, whose temperature is maintained by an electrical current might sort out the heater issue.

    Electric motors weigh nowt in comparison to the humble combustion engine, its the batteries that cause the problems.

    Unfortunately my idea of a small nuclear generator under the bonnet might have certain drawbacks!

  18. In the current designs, regenerative braking is used to top up the traction batteries. Diverting it to heat will only reduce the range further. No such thing as a free lunch, and all that. You may be right, though. Nuclear is the way forward. Just have to get those reactor cores down to a manageable size.


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