By current estimates, transport is responsible for at least 25% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. To meet the required climate change targets, we must reduce these emissions by 95% by 2050.
It’s undeniable that electric vehicles have a big role to play in the greening of the transport sector. This new generation of cars is non-polluting and emissions-free, and slowly becoming more affordable, to boot. At the time of writing, EVs have a 4.7% market share, with the coronavirus lockdown contributing to a spike in interest. However, arriving here has not been an easy ride. Much education has been (and is still) required to alleviate concerns about ‘range anxiety’. The cause has not been helped by mouthpieces in the gas automotive industry claiming that EVs are worse for the environment because they are powered by ‘dirty electricity’. Fortunately, these claims have since been proven untrue.
Swapping to electric vehicles is not a silver bullet that will solve all the problems with the transport industry. While EVs are non-polluting, they can still be powered using electricity from coal-burning or nuclear sources. This, obviously, is no good. Plus, there isn’t a surplus of renewable energy sitting around to power EVs: it’s already being used to power our homes and businesses.
As much as we’d love to see more EVs on the roads, the UK’s current energy systems are not set up to handle such a sudden influx. If we want to make sure that the future of transport is truly green, we need to rethink both our energy infrastructure and our attitudes towards vehicle ownership altogether.
Local transport needs local energy
According to the Energy Saving Trust, by 2030 there could be 8-11 million hybrid or electric cars on the UK’s roads, and over 25 million hybrid or electric cars by 2040. However, the UK energy system needs to adapt before that can happen.
While the national grid has more than enough energy to charge all these vehicles, we still need more renewable energy if we want our transport systems to be truly zero-carbon. Additionally, the UK grid structure couldn’t handle all these electric vehicles being charged at once. A shift towards widescale EV adoption may need to be paired with a shift towards decentralised energy systems. This may take the form of localised renewable power stations or even mini local grids. Either way, such decentralised options are more reliable and often more cost-effective.
Changing attitudes to vehicle ownership
No matter which way you cut it, electric vehicles are more expensive and specialised than your standard car. For that reason, we think it’s unlikely that everyone will own an EV. Many people simply don’t have the offroad space required to charge their vehicle, and as yet the grid can’t handle the additional charging load. We really need to become more aware of our carbon footprints in order to tackle climate change. As that happens, it’s likely people will consider whether or not they actually need to own their own car.
As EVs become the norm, we think car share schemes will become more popular. Zipcar already provides 325 electric cars for rental around London. We think bikes and scooters (both electric and manual) will increase in popularity, too. While this is great for reducing the carbon footprint of the transport sector, our roads aren’t set up to handle an influx of cyclists and scooter users. If we expect people to commute without their cars, perhaps we need more cycle paths to ensure they can do it safely. We need to rethink and adapt if the transport revolution is to be a green one. Changing attitudes and education is essential to this movement.
Charging straight from the sun
While the majority of EV charging will happen at homes overnight, that won’t always be possible. Public charge facilities must become more prevalent to provide rapid charging mid-journey. In fact, Gridserve is planning a state-of-the-art EV charging forecourt at Broadlands Business Park (just down the road from RenEnergy).
As these increase, we hope to see more EV charge systems that incorporate solar PV, perhaps even a solar carport? Pairing EV charge facilities with custom-installed solar ensures that all EVs are fully clean (not powered by coal or nuclear electricity).
More than EVs
While a wave of electric vehicles is at the heart of the green transport revolution, it is not the only potential solution. EVs make great cars and light commercial vehicles but are not suitable for machinery or heavy transit. Here, hydrogen power may be used as a clean fuelling alternative.
Since most hydrogen fuelling systems repurpose existing (and unused) gas pipelines, we already have a head start on implementing the infrastructure. The only byproduct is clean water, but producing hydrogen is very energy-intensive and requires a lot of renewable energy in order to happen cleanly. Even when we’re not placing all our bets on electric vehicles, the green transport revolution needs renewable energy at its core.
As you can see, the green transport revolution is more complicated than just getting more electric vehicles on our roads. We need to explore other options, too, and update our roads and energy systems to make it happen. Unfortunately, we don’t have much promising news yet. The government’s economic recovery strategy prioritises the creation of roads but gives no mention to cycle paths, EV charging, or low carbon infrastructure. We only hope that the green transport revolution doesn’t come too late, if at all.