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12 July 2017

EVs and the Festival of Speed

Ten days or so ago, I went to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I go there each year, but this time you could be excused for thinking that the petrolheads’ celebration is rapidly becoming the property of the batteryheads. Everybody and his wife seems to be producing an electric or a hybrid petrol/electric car right now, and, when the fastest car up the hillclimb the day I was there was the Formula E electric racing car, I began to wonder if something had been fixed. Were it not for the fact that I have too much respect for Lord March’s integrity, I might still be wondering about that. Anyway, apart from the obvious Tesla, BMW, Audi and so on, pretty much all the Japanese manufacturers were showing hybrids (a lot of coupés, presumably to ape the i8) as well as slightly more unexpected ones, like Mini.

So, are we all becoming low emission, clean drivers? Up to a point, that’s what electric vehicles are doing, but there are still some issues that muddy the waters. The big concern is how the electricity the cars use is generated. That varies a lot, across different countries. In the hydro heaven of Norway, where sales of EVs have been strong, the net effect is clearly positive. At other end of the scale, though, in China and India, for example, where dirty coal is still burned, the picture is less clear. Is there any real benefit in powering cars with batteries if the electricity stored in them is producing as much - or maybe even more - air pollution than would come out of an equivalent number of fossil fuel powered vehicles? 

Batteries are largely formed of metals, and we all know that the mining and smelting industry is a pretty heavy polluter, both of the atmosphere and of the land into which the waste and run-off they generate dissipates. So the effluent caused by the extraction of minerals to make batteries can’t be ignored in assessing the impact of EVs.

Are we, therefore, in danger of just wandering off down a blind alley? Is it too glib a position to assume a virtuous cleanliness of electric vehicles, because nothing comes out of the back, whereas in fact all that is happening is that what would have come from the exhaust pipe is simply wafting into the atmosphere elsewhere, at the mine, the smelter and the power station? That’s a fair question to pose, but the answer is not entirely straightforward. If no further development goes on, then there is one simple positive to point at. Petrol (and diesel) vehicles create the pollution wherever they are. So the concentration of bad air will be greatest in cities, where there is the highest concentration of vehicles. Switching those vehicles to electric power - despite the reservations above - contains the pollution in a more confined and - importantly -  less densely populated area. So while the overall atmospheric effect may not right now be significantly different (on a global basis), there is at least a benefit in shifting the effluent to more confined areas, where, of course, it should be easier to clean it and render it less harmful. In other words, scrubbing the emissions from one power station is an easier exercise than cleaning the cumulative effect of thousands of cars in a city centre. Just think of those grim pictures you’ve seen in the press of a foggy Beijing or Jakarta - or, let’s be fair, London or New York.

That’s assuming we stay with the current status quo. But that won’t happen. Technology moves on, things develop. Right now, China is the world’s biggest polluter. But change is happening. In 2016, for example, China increased it’s power generation by 1.4%. At the same time, coal imports declined by 4.7%. OK, I understand that coal imports are not the whole story, and that the dirty brown coal is still flowing across the border from Russia, but progress is being made. Earlier this year, the last coal-fired station in Beijing was closed, making the capital the first coal-free city in the country. 

There’s a long way still to go, and closing coal burning would be expedited by a greater use of relatively much cleaner gas - anti-fracking protesters, think hard about the logic of your case; it’s difficult to make sense of it, aside from being a luddite knee-jerk. Gas is cleaner than coal, even if it in the end is just a stop-gap on the way to renewables. 

We are at the beginning of the electric vehicle road - and they may of course themselves be pushed aside by hydrogen or yet other newer technologies - but a stroll around that Goodwood Festival this year was a lesson in how seriously the auto industry is addressing the issue. In order for the sort of investment that is being made to be sustainable, though, it also has to be made back upstream to power generation and mining, otherwise we will be following that blind alley. But the signs are positive; and that’s in turn positive for the mining industry, because, in the end, it’s the metals that make the batteries a viable product. 

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