Michael Davis has always been ahead of the curve in highlighting the benefits of green energy.
The farmer at West Knockenbaird, near Insch in Aberdeenshire, bought his first electric car in 2013 and already has wind turbines and solar panels at his north-east property.
So one might imagine he would be an enthusiastic supporter of the UK Government’s policy decision to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040 in an attempt to tackle carbon emissions and usher in a transport revolution.
Yet while Mr Davis said yesterday he thought the policy made sense, he isn’t some Panglossian optimist, who believes the scheme won’t face problems.
On the contrary, he, more than most, can appreciate the devil is in the detail of Environment Minister Michael Gove’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions and introduce electric and hybrid vehicles on British roads in less than a quarter of a century.
Mr Davis said: “I think we have to move forward with an innovative approach and get away from old-fashioned ideas.
“And we also need to bring a lot of people with vested interests together and make sure they are pulling in the same direction. The thing to remember is this isn’t happening overnight.
“If it did, and everybody bought electric cars and started recharging them at the same time, you would need a much cleverer transmission system to stop the whole thing from collapsing.
“Thankfully, it is going to be phased in over a long period, and I’ve no doubt technology will adapt to the task. At the moment (when electric cars account for fewer than 5% of the overall number of vehicles in Britain), there is a big problem with the reliability of charging points across the country.
“Either it isn’t working or the network isn’t suitable for your car and that creates difficulties, so we need some real joined-up thinking, more flexible planning laws, and a change in people’s mindsets away from doing things the way they have always done them.”
The announcement by Mr Gove has gained praise among Conservative MPs, but sparked criticism from organisations on both sides of the divide. John Finnie, the Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, is among those who argue the process is being carried out too slowly.
“A ban by 2040 is obviously welcome, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough or fast enough and it’s a shame the UK government has decided to go at the same pace as France and others, rather than taking a lead,” Mr Finnie said.
“Nevertheless, fumes from cars and lorries are ending thousands of lives prematurely each year, and it is therefore encouraging that the UK Government is finally moving to protect people’s health and boost a key green industry.
“However, by making the target date in 23 years’ time, the UK Government is placing strain on local authorities throughout Scotland who will have to put electric charge points and other necessary infrastructure in place.
“It is evident there will be difficulties for rural local authorities like Highland Council who will be tasked with placing several charge points across challenging types of terrain.
“And while car manufacturers have shown that electric vehicles can function well for short-distance town and inner city driving, they have some way to go to convince people in rural communities to make the switch to electric.”
However the Automobile Association has warned the National Grid will be under enormous pressure to “cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour”.
And Quentin Willson, former presenter of Top Gear, claimed yesterday the new measures would cost “trillions” of pounds.
He told a radio programme: “You are going to have to get rid of 15 million diesel cars, you’ll have to change car factories, no more petrol stations, just think about what that’s going to do.
“I know it is 23 years away, but it is going to be a huge bill for both industry and consumers.
“I have no problem with the ideology – the practicality of it is: will we, in 23 years, have the infrastructure and the lithium-ion batteries that will give us one charge that delivers 300 miles?
“Will we be able to actually support all this new technology which is as yet not proven?”
In Europe, those who manufacture so-called “green cars” benefit from a variety of subsidies and tax breaks, with leading companies taking steps to ensure they are at the forefront of the radical new developments.
Toyota, which pioneered hybrid vehicles, has recently unveiled plans for a new range of pure-electric models.
Volvo has, this month, become the first major traditional car-maker to set a date for phasing out vehicles, powered solely by an internal combustion engine: and it has insisted all its models after 2019 will be either electric or hybrids.
The political and environmental row looks likely to linger on, whatever happens after Brexit, but despite the reservations expressed by some motoring organisations, others have reacted positively to the UK Government’s move.
Tim Shallcross, head of technical policy for road safety charity IAM RoadSmart, told the Press and Journal: “This is eminently achievable and there is no reason why it can’t be implemented in the time scale.
“All the leading manufacturers are working on producing alternatively-fuelled vehicles and it is not as if this policy is being introduced in 2020 or 2025.
“Let’s face it, how many people are still driving the same car for 10 years, let alone 20 years, after they first bought it?
“The question of how to power all the electric cars, once they are up and running, is the elephant in the room.
“It means we do have to place a lot of faith on the electricity companies.
“And we are not exactly known for our faith in these firms. But we have to realise this is something new, something which requires us to come up with fresh ideas in the future.
“What we can’t do is be rigid about planning ahead.
“If 10 million people come home at 7pm, have their tea, switch on Eastenders, and recharge their cars at the same time, well yes, that could be problematic.
“But we know there will be infrastructure challenges and the public will have to adapt their car usage accordingly.
“If you get home for the evening and you know you won’t be driving again until the next morning, what’s to stop your car being charged up between 2am and 3am or 4am and 5am? I think we have to realise technology is moving at a terrific rate and we can’t just stand still and pretend it isn’t happening. That is one reason why I am pretty relaxed about the government’s decision.
“We are talking about 23 years down the line. That is a long time.
“Just cast your mind back 23 years to 1994.
“If somebody had told you then about the creation of satnav, or iPads or
Twitter or Facebook, you would have laughed at them.”
His forward-looking attitude was endorsed by Tom Campbell, the managing director of the popular North Coast 500 route in the Highlands.
Some people have queried whether such a remote part of Scotland might struggle to accommodate the construction of new charging sites.
But Mr Campbell said: “As the Energy Saving Trust reported last year, it is already possible to drive the NC500 in an electric vehicle, because there are a number of rapid charging points on the route.
“Although the number of electric cars on the roads is relatively small at this point, we have 23 years in which to prepare for a switch away for petrol – who knows what the range of electric vehicles will be by that point, or what charging stations will look like?
“The environmental benefits of electric cars are undeniable, and we welcome efforts to make them easier to use.”
At the moment, there are only 12,000 public charging points in the whole of Britain, and fewer than 100,000 vehicles using them. But, as Mr Davis pointed out at his home in Insch, that figure has dramatically increased in just three or four years.
He said: “If you’re travelling from Aberdeen to Inverurie every day, there is nothing wrong with using an electric car in summer or winter.
“In fact, it has clear benefits for the environment.
“I have to drive to England regularly, so I would never just rely on an electric car at the moment.
“But things are changing and we have to acknowledge that.
“We should not underestimate the challenges which face us, but there are opportunities too.”
When outlining his proposals on Wednesday, Mr Gove said there was “no alternative”.
Whatever their differences, most commentators seem to agree with that premise.
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