Is the penny finally dropping?
It seems that the sunlight of reality may finally be just beginning to percolate through the fog of confusion in the brains of some of our elected “leaders”. There appears to be a recognition amongst some of our MPs that the arbitrary targets set for the end of sale of internal combustion engine vehicles and the end of fossil fuel power generation are perhaps rather optimistic, and that maybe a little more coherent thought should have been applied before making such off-the-cuff promises; at least, I have heard rumblings of dissent from certain quarters.
If these rumours are true, then it can only be a good thing; there is no reason not to support a move towards greater electrification of the world, and a reduced reliance on fossil fuels, but announcing arbitrary targets of this sort without the clear ability to hit them seems to me to leave those announcing them as nothing more than hostages to fortune. Or maybe, as a politician, you have a kind of inkling that you will not be around in 2030, 2035 or 2050, so you can happily make the promise, knowing that it will be someone else’s problem to account for the fact that the deadline is missed, or has to amended.
So, without delving into too much scientific or technological detail of things I’ve written of before, what are the planets that have to align in order to make the promises come true?
First, obviously, the electric power has to be generated. Were things different, that could probably be done without too much difficulty. (Incidentally, although I’m talking about the UK here, it’s not the only one: Germany has probably got a bigger problem, since Angela Merkel was so concerned about the likelihood of a Fukushima-style earthquake in central Europe that she switched off the country’s nuclear generators. That leaves Germany more reliant on coal than for many years.) The situation in the UK is that the percentage of electricity produced from renewable sources is steadily growing. Unfortunately, though, unless wave and tide power is harnessed - the UK is well-resourced in this, but development of the necessary technology has been painfully slow - renewables cannot provide 100% of the country’s power requirements. Gas would be useful to fill in the inevitable gaps in sun and wind power, but instead of making use of the gas under our feet, we choose, with an eye to eco pressure groups, to import LNG from abroad, on dirty, smoking diesel tanker vessels. Nukes would be good, as well, but even with a government finally that seems to understand the potential of small reactors, the time-scale is unlikely to be sufficiently prompt for the promised dates.
Then, once the power is generated, it needs to be distributed. Now, where I live, power is transmitted by UK Power Networks, and actually they seem a fairly efficient organisation (and they send me cheques twice a year because I have some of their poles on my land); what I don’t know about this issue is how easily the network can be scaled up to meet increasing need. What I do know, though, is that at the point where the electricity needs to flow into the actual vehicle, the UK is lagging far behind most of Europe and the US. In blunt terms, we are not installing anything like enough charging points. As a rider to that, and this is not exclusive to the UK, I can’t see that anybody has yet managed to resolve the issue of how to handle charging where there are no driveways or garages, and the parking is all on-street.
The final bit of the puzzle to try to place is the issue of the batteries. Again, in battery manufacture, the UK is slipping behind competitor nations, and this matters. To have a viable EV industry, battery production is essential; just remember the supply chain issues that arose during and just after the covid epidemic…. Sadly, UK battery production just seems to run into problems, problems, problems. And at the other end of the battery’s life, when it is finally spent, there are again issues to face. In order to help the supply of the component elements, reprocessing - recycling - of batteries will be essential. But as yet, nobody is really sufficiently sure of the length of life of the batteries; I seem to recall when Tesla first appeared, the battery life guarantee was eight years, and the same was spoken of when I bought the first of my hybrid cars. But the industry is too new, so for the recyclers, the question is when do you put in the investment? Do it too soon, and your facility risks sitting there unused, waiting until batteries begin to wear out - money sitting there doing nothing. Wait too long, and you may be unable then to break into the supply chain.
This is nothing more than a brief look, and I’m sure these problems are all solvable. But cavalier statements about the end of internal combustion engines, or the glorious dawn of net zero are frankly stupid. We deserve to be told the truth, which is that these targets are aspirations - laudable ones, indeed - but ones which need more technological development than a politician’s off-the-cuff crowd-pleaser might suggest. If some of them are beginning to realise the realities, that can only be a good thing.
Just a small added piece here. I was sorry to hear of the death a couple of weeks ago of Trevor Tarring. He was a very good man, and knew my father and I think also my grandfather. He was always willing to assist me with this column, and wrote many entertaining and informative pieces himself for Lord Copper. He will be greatly missed, by colleagues and his myriad friends.