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  • Fred Piechoczek

Kryptonite, hydrogen or electricity direct

This article was written by Fred Piechoczek. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own (although in this case he is himself dubious of some).

You may love the scream of your V12 Lamborghini as you wake the neighbours at seven in the morning, but it is true that we are leaving petrol cars behind and those aromas that have blessed our streets for decades. So what next? Public transport (just joking)? Stick to Zoom? In the 1960s, the Women’s Institute called for cycle lanes, and we even had some in the countryside in those days. That was a time when, like Sweden, the UK could still have moved to driving on the right and joined Europe. The infrastructure no longer permits either that or cycle lanes at reasonable cost, by reason of road design, junction layout and space. As one of the few cyclists of Tunbridge Wells, I am familiar with the risks. Is this why mopeds have disappeared from the streets?

It does not take genius level IQ to see that the debate on the future of transport, whether in Parliament or the press is ill-informed and tendentious. Whereas the green issues can be debated from a scientific and moral perspective, when it comes to energy generation and its conversion for transportation, practicality and implementation rule, and whatever solutions may be followed, there is a massive infrastructure development issue. There was a time when London had no sewers, so the Victorians built them at huge cost and disruption. London today still benefits (and suffers) from those same sewers. Likewise, the London Underground and the national rail system were constructed (swiftly) with much pain. There was a time when we had no highspeed trains running to the North (oops, ignore that one). The modern success I would like to mention is the construction of the network to deliver natural gas from the North Sea to my house. My point being that we have to engage with energy policy and its requirement for infrastructure, before we can start on transportation.

Whatever future we may choose, electricity generation and distribution is likely to be at its heart. Electric cars require electricity, but so does production of green hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles. There does not seem to be a satisfactory plan in place in the UK to address even replacement, let alone development, of electricity generation capacity. Where would we be if we had not shifted manufacturing to China? Does importing your steel save the planet when China powers blast furnaces with coal? Oil and gas are also at the heart of the economy and are far from being fully replaceable. The tomatoes you buy in the supermarket from Andalusia use natural gas for: fertiliser (CO(NH2)2), polycarbonate tunnels, heating, packaging, transportation – sorry, you are eating natural gas. Tomatoes are but a trivial example of the many, many uses of gas and oil in agriculture and manufacturing, apart from energy generation. Can you justify being green when you prefer to import your natural gas from Qatar, rather than taking it from beneath the North Sea? In this case, for the immediate future pragmatism may still trump green idealism, with no incremental global warming, and perhaps a benefit by saving transportation, super-cooling, construction of gas terminals and of course, investment of their profits by the Qataris in empty London new-builds.

As to electricity, there are the twin problems of generation and distribution, both of which have to be resolved on a national and local level, so it is not just a question of building a mega power station. I do not have the data, but I suspect that our distribution system for both domestic and commercial purposes is at the weaker end of the scale. Ten years ago I talked to Tesla about finding locations for charging stations in the UK, whereas when I now travel in Europe, thirty plus Tesla charging stalls are frequent. A recent large charging station in Birmingham (not Tesla, they would have thought about this) cannot connect all its chargers yet by reason of lack of electricity supply. Domestic three phase supply is common in France and Germany (but not here), and three phase charges your electric vehicle three time faster. We have further to go than the public debate may realise.

None of this really matters, if we accede to the growing clamour of “let’s stick with petrol anyway, it is just as green and ethical and …”. Well, this is not going to happen, although I admit full comparisons are fraught – certainly Volkswagen managed to prove that its petrol cars were as green as electric cars, but then Germany continues to expand its lignite mining for electricity generation. One way of comparing the options is to simply look at the efficiency numbers from original source to car and then from car to tyre on the road.

If you drive with an internal combustion engine, 45% of the energy value of your fuel has been expended by the time you reach for the petrol pump on the forecourt. The engine requires a fair share of the energy to turn itself over with its plethora of mechanical parts and indirect propulsion. The final efficiency of energy usage at the wheels is 16% for a petrol engine and 20% for a diesel engine – congratulations, Rudolf Diesel!

If you drive a hydrogen fuel cell car, you will probably have to return for refuelling as soon as you reach home, unless you live in Swindon. As you extinguish your cigar and start to pump hydrogen gas into your pressurised tank, you will find that 32% of the energy value of the fuel has been used to produce the hydrogen and get it to Swindon. Your car then generates electricity to power a fuel cell to run a motor, leaving you with 33% final efficiency of energy usage at the wheels – sorry, Rudolf, I congratulated you too soon.

When you plug in your electric car at home, you have already lost 6% of the energy value of your fuel (perhaps a little more, depending on where you live). The electric motor is extremely efficient, so when the power hits the wheels, you are still operating at 77% fuel efficiency. The obvious question compared to fuel cell is why bother to convert electricity to hydrogen and then back to electricity in the fuel cell and lose 44% of your fuel efficiency. Even not lugging a ton of battery around cannot justify that, surely.

I do not actually believe the above source material to be entirely correct, with petrol/diesel being penalised, but I do not have the detail of its preparation. The fuel cell to electric comparison is probably good. In that case, the source of electricity generation does not matter in the same way as it does for the petrol/diesel comparison. But that is neither here nor there, as they have become non-starters anyway (and as a runner and cyclist, I hate exhaust fumes).

The main point remains one of infrastructure, rather than type of vehicle, and a viable plan to fix potholes - oops, wrong article - but the conclusion is the same. We are not talking about a complex scenario or new technology (that can come later). Expeditious planning and implementation (whether public or private sector, probably both) is the key. Failing this, then we might as well rely on kryptonite to power our future.




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