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Electric Cars… again!

September 15, 2009

Sometimes I’m compelled to blog a topic just to get a succinct point of view on the record… usually because of the way I have seen or heard it reported.

Today this was electric cars. For some reason the debate focusses on whether they are achieving the performance, capacity and range of cars with internal combustion engines. This also tends to sustain a rather cursory way of regarding electric cars – i.e. that they must be green because they emit no exhaust fumes.

So I just want to list some of the other critical considerations that should be raised every time the credentials of electric cars are examined. These are my questions or challenges, I’m not offering the answers:

  1. Electric cars are, at best, as green as the means of generating the electricity which is used to recharge them. In a country served by old-style coal-fired power stations, an electric car is a coal-burner.
  2. It’s worse than that – because there is an extra inefficiency – the loss of power during transmission and transformation over the grid. [I think these losses are quite high – compared to the delivery of the power from an internal combustion engine when delivered via a local mechanical transmission].
  3. Once the electrical charge is “on board”, then the efficiency of the electric motor in converting it into mechanical energy needs to be considered.
  4. The evaluation should also take account of the ‘whole life’ energy costs of an electric car, i.e. is more or less energy required to source the materials, fabricate the parts and assemble the car, than for other types of vehicle. Similarly – how do the energy costs of decommissioning and recycling stack up.
  5. Finally – moving away from energy efficiency per se – what are the relative environmental impacts of the extraction, processing and manipulation of the materials required for electric cars and for other types? In particular I am thinking about the batteries and about the magnets and motor windings.

I’m sure there’s a combination of answers to those questions which would put electric cars out in front. I would love to know some of the answers and considerations… but I would also love to know why the media seem to cover electric cars on such a superficial level, thus encouraging the rest of us to do the same. Government is making decisions right now about investing in electric cars, and that debate should be informed and properly democratised.

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