Electric Avenue: Are EVs the answer?

Current thinking on future vehicle technologies is firmly focused on Electric Vehicles (EV). Are we barking up the wrong green tree and should we be seeking alternative green options?

Jorgen Pedersen
31 August 2023
Photo credit: Angel Santana Garcia
Photo credit: Angel Santana Garcia

Jorgen Pedersen, Director of New Technology, SYSTRA has been pulling together curious minds to discuss the technology surrounding the fuels that could help the transport sector reach Net Zero by 2050. In this second article in the series he lifts the lid on electric vehicles from their origin, their green credentials, and of course their future use.

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Are we barking up the wrong green tree or should we be seeking alternative green options when it comes to future vehicle technologies? Current thinking on future vehicle technologies is firmly focused on Electric Vehicles (EV), whether those are Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) or Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV).

Further articles in this series:

Future fuels

Electric Avenue: Are EVs the answer?

Hydrogen: a future fuel?

While 20% of vehicles purchased in the UK during 2022 were EVs, neither type come without significant side effects which are not being discussed enough.

There is no doubt that when it comes to new vehicle technologies, EVs are winning the race in comparison to Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engines. Is this because they are simpler, more efficient, easier to produce, more convenient or perhaps better marketed? 

Rise of the EV market

Let’s start by examining the rise of the EV market. You may be surprised to learn that experiments with electric vehicles began as early as the 1830s when a Scottish built battery powered seven-tonne train pulled a six-tonne load over a staggering 1.5miles at 4mph.

We know we can increase our energy capacity to accommodate demand, but at what financial, ecological, and environmental cost? How will delivering the required new infrastructure impact Net Zero? 

Further development of electric vehicles happened during the 1880s when a succession of inventors created motorised tricycles and trains.

Electric trains were introduced for deep underground mines, these were considered safer and pollution free, therefore protecting miners from harmful gases.

By 1897 the first electric powered taxis appeared in London, and in New York a year later and were considered ideal for city living.

The first modern hybrid car was the Armstrong Phaeton, developed in Bridgeport Connecticut in 1896.

It was powered by 6.5L 2-cylinder petrol engine, coupled to a DC generator and boasted many world firsts, including an automatic transmission and an electric start, not to be seen on any other vehicles for decades to come.  

The Phaeton was quickly followed by Ferdinand Porshe’s Semper Vivus displayed at the Paris World Fair in 1900 and became more widely available in 1901. The Vivus used a petrol engine to power a generator to charge 44 x 80V lead acid batteries that powered the small electric motors attached to both front wheels (this later changed to be on all 4 wheels).  It could achieve speeds more than 10mph and had an 80-mile range. 

Roll forward 100-years to 1997 when Toyota introduced the first successful mass-produced hybrid car – the Prius.

Back in the 1990s the biggest issues preventing widespread EV adoption was their range which enabled intra-city trips only, the lack of battery charging infrastructure and the amount of time required to re-charge. Sound familiar?  

In the 1900s the race to develop electric and hybrid vehicles began because petrol was only available in limited supply from chemists. It wasn’t until 1905 that the first petrol station was built in St Louis, Missouri, followed 2-years later by the second in Seattle, Washington, both were funded by private enterprise.  

Despite today's international mandate to develop carbon friendly vehicles, it has largely been left to private enterprise to develop the modern EV as well as the infrastructure to support them, these companies have had to have deep pockets.

Tesla as well as being the first mass producer of popular EVs, was also the first company to successfully deliver a fleet of superchargers aimed at rapid charging for longer-distance travel. So far, Tesla have installed more than 44,000 superchargers globally and 35,000 slower chargers at large trip attractor locations such as shopping malls to meet demand. 

Are consumers best served by the private sector?

Should we rely so heavily on the private sector to develop the necessary infrastructure?  Are consumers best served by the private sector to provide the best technologies or most carbon friendly solutions?  Are we aware of the impact that new technology has on our environment, our health and our planet?  Is there better or alternative tech that should be further investigated, moved forward, embraced, and promoted?

There is no doubt that the introduction of EV technologies has helped us focus on the need for carbon friendly transport solutions and has given us a collective awareness of our sustainable transport needs.  But will it deliver on our net zero goals?  

Battery technology is not sufficiently mature enough to provide the range that is expected from ICE petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles. New solid-state batteries, and liquid flow batteries may have the potential to increase range considerably, but these are still many years away.  

BEV’s are on average 30% heavier than their conventional ICE siblings, this means they cause more road degradation, and significantly more brake-dust and tyre particulates that can enter the air we breathe which is being suggested could be equally or more damaging to our health than Co2 and NoX.  

Lithium-Ion batteries which are used in most EVs have an optimum temperature range between 0°and 27°C, when the battery is exposed to temperatures below freezing or above 27°C performance can be severely compromised. In addition, Direct Current Rapid Charging (DCRC) while more convenient has been proven to have a detrimental impact on the overall lifespan of an EV’s battery. 

Another concern is the impact of plugging millions of EVs into the National Grid when everyone gets home from work?  There are technologies that can now support Battery to Grid to ensure that the grid doesn’t become overloaded, but consumers are struggling to understand how that will work. 

There are many unanswered questions. How will we accommodate a fair and equitable exchange in a Battery to Grid environment? Plus, would a higher calling from the National Grid take priority over your vehicle when you most needed it? 

When considering the pros and cons of future fuels, we must consider the environmental impact of a wholesale shift in demand for lithium-Ion batteries. In a recent article in Forbes Magazine, it was suggested that increased demand for lithium, cobalt, graphite, and nickel will require developing more than 300 new mines, over and above our capacity to recycle old batteries. 

Do we have any idea of the ecological impact that opening so many mines would have, let alone the carbon footprint that would be attributed to such activity?  Do we fully understand the full carbon footprint of BEV’s? Or perhaps by simply ignoring it we can avoid answering this difficult question since none of the minerals required will be mined in rural Britain.

If for a moment we turn to our freight needs, can BEV technology be used to support our heavy haulage needs?  The answer is a clear no.  Current Battery technologies will not be able to provide the performance or range for pulling heavy loads.  Volvo has a line of Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) trucks, and if one takes the time to read their FAQs they are extremely honest about their capabilities. 

They discuss carbon reduction, carbon footprint, range, charging time and even battery weight.  They stop short of indicating the lifespan of their truck batteries, which is difficult to predict based on use case, charging methods, heat, cold, load etc. 

But suffice it to say, that with the general configuration of 2-6 batteries weighing about half a ton each, a range is about 200 miles (300KM) which is short, and a charge time with AC chargers of around 9 hours and just 2 hours with a DC charger, which I’m sure will depend on the charger capacity. With these limitations it would suggest that they are not going to replace the current UK heavy haulage fleet anytime soon. 

So, where are we? At present BEV sales in the UK constitute about 20% of all car sales. By December 2021, the UK’s renewable energy generation was 42%, meaning that 58% of our electricity supply is dependent on fossil fuels. Can the National Grid support the level of BEVs that are expected over the next few years?  While renewable energy production is increasing year-on-year, it doesn’t seem to be able to match our appetite to consume electricity. 

We know we can increase our energy capacity to accommodate demand, but at what financial, ecological, and environmental cost? How will delivering the required new infrastructure impact Net Zero? 

My objective in writing this series is to stimulate a healthy debate on how we should approach future fuels, and perhaps be a little more open minded to the opportunity for alternative options to those that are currently being presented to us. I’d welcome your views, including those which are at odds to mine, it is only through debate and scientific investigation that we will make the right decisions to reach net zero. The next article will explore hydrogen as a fuel in more detail.

Jorgen Pedersen, Director of New Technology, SYSTRA



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