It was really quite remarkable. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard that, at the recent G8 meeting, Gordon Brown was effectively trying to dictate technology policy by saying that all British motorists will be driving electric or hybrid cars by 2020. Eh?
Firstly, 2020 is a mere 12 years away. That’s not actually a lot of time to achieve such a major changeover. It has taken about 100 years to achieve the levels of automotive engineering sophistication we have now, so I somehow doubt that 12 years is enough. Secondly, given that transport accounts for somewhere around 40% of all UK energy demand then I’d like Brown to explain exactly where all that additional electricity to charge all those electric cars is actually going to come from.
Battery-powered vehicles, despite the improvement in battery performance, are still impractical for general use. Even the admittedly very excellent Tesla electric sports car needs more than three hours to recharge its batteries. New battery technology may improve that, but the problem then is that fast charging will put an even greater strain on the electricity grid.
I read that one electric “supercar” developer is saying that the new battery technology they’ll be using will allow their car to be fully recharged in a mere 10 minutes.
However, it turns out this is providing, of course, you have access to a three-phase supply – which, strangely, most households don’t.
Small electric city cars such as those being built by Norwegian company “Th!nk” are due to be imported into the UK starting next year.
Now, it happens that Norway has two electric car builders. The second one is Elbilnorge, which builds the Buddy electric city car. These are fun little machines and, for city dwellers or those with short commuting distances, they could be an interesting option.
How many electric car companies does Scotland have, I hear you asking. We don’t – it’s all far too embarrassing.
If Brown has been talking to the fuel-cell lobby and now believes that this is the way to go then he’s also sadly mistaken. Fuel cells using hydrogen and other fuels are still expensive and thin on the ground. And, although they have been built into a number of prototype vehicles, they are a still a long way from being mass produced.
Brown also said that clean cars would be exempt from car tax, and that, “These hybrid cars, as we are finding with discussions in America and Japan, are cars within the range for families – not just for a few, but cars that the ordinary family would think of buying”. However, the reality is that, like the cost of domestic renewable systems, the cost of hybrid cars, by which Brown means fuel cell plus battery cars, not petrol or diesel electric, is still prohibitive for the majority of “ordinary families”, and of course they aren’t generally available yet anyway.
No, the logical way to go with cars in particular is to avoid like the plague anything that’s going to push up production costs or disrupt the existing and well developed supply chain.
The only sensible way in which this can be achieved, of course, is to develop new liquid fuels that require the minimum of conversion work both to the car or other vehicle and to the fuel distribution system.
There are a number of candidates but, increasingly, the one that looks most interesting is methanol. One of the oldest fuels we have – it’s also known as wood alcohol – one can produce methanol from a range of sources.
It is a high-octane fuel and used in the American Champ Car racing series and for some drag racing in the UK and elsewhere. It does require some limited modifications to be made to the engine and fuel system, but nothing overly dramatic or expensive.
The main constituents of methanol are carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Conveniently, coal produces lots of CO and we have lots of coal.
So here’s a radical thought: let’s forget the whole idea of carbon sequestration and just collect the CO for use in methanol production using hydrogen produced by (preferably) electrolysis, powered ( preferably again) by renewables – maybe offshore wind.
We can buy electrolysis units from another Norwegian company, Norsk Hydro. Yes, I know, why don’t we build electrolysers? In principle, they’re dead simple.
I mentioned the cost problem related to new technology cars, but this is as nothing compared with the cost of technology such as wood pellet-fuelled boilers, domestic wind turbines and heat pumps. It is no wonder, given the cost of these things, that so few people are actually buying them.
A 6KW wind turbine can cost £10,000, which is the price of a small car, yet from an engineering standpoint, a lot less sophisticated. A wood-pellet boiler can cost £12,000 and ground-heat pump systems are about £5,000 – plus, of course, they need an electrical supply to run them.
At the moment, even though the price of heating oil is now more than 60p a litre and therefore expensive enough to cause some people to cut back on their use of central heating, it still isn’t expensive enough to warrant replacing it with other alternative technologies such as wood-pellet boilers.
Of course, much of this technology is imported and there is little effort being put in here to develop many indigenous alternatives.
Having examined some of this technology in detail, I’m truly surprised that it costs so much and am beginning to wonder whether there is some sort of “eco premium” at play here. It needs commoditising to bring down its prices and bring it into greater everyday use. Perhaps what we need is someone like Tesco to take this on.
And while I’m on this particular hobby horse, what about the solar-thermal for homes rip-off? What is little more than a “black” roof panel designed to absorb solar energy (heat) – a radiator in reverse – hooked into the domestic water system by a bit of pipework and pump commands crazy prices here in Britain. Why? It’s nonsensical.