Electric cars put under the environmental spotlight

Posted on March 17th, 2011 by Rob Marshall

I am looking forward to the rise of the viable electric car. Some car enthusiasts think that it may signal the death of the ‘petrol head’ but I cannot see why they are worried.

Several years ago, I drove a BMW MINI electric car, the MINI E, and found that it was just as fast (if not faster) than the Cooper model and its top speed was well in excess of the British legal motorway limit. The electric motor’s ability to provide its maximum turning force (or ‘torque’) from almost zero revolutions gave the MINI outstanding acceleration and, for this reason, electric cars could make promising contenders in motorsport. The Lotus-built Tesla Roadster also demonstrates that electric cars can be far from boring.

Yes, there are problems about their limited range. Yes, there are concerns about their high retail prices. Yes, there are worries about the residual values but all of these doubts will be addressed as the mass-produced electric vehicle (EV) becomes even more sophisticated. After all, by putting up with a few inconveniences, you are driving the ultimate environmentally-friendly car, right?

Wrong. The esteemed consumer champion, Which? has challenged the zero-emission claims of many EV manufacturers. Ignoring the environmental implication of producing the battery packs, Which? has calculated the carbon dioxide levels (the use of the gas is debated, because CO2 is not really a pollutant – we would all be dead if it did not exist) that are produced by conventional power stations to recharge a typical electric car and compared it to the most efficient conventional diesel-powered competition. The results are striking.

Although EVs do not create any localised air pollution, their emissions are simply transferred to the power station instead. While this might have some benefit in congested cities, the ability of electric vehicles to cut CO2 levels throughout the UK is being questioned.

Which? calculated that driving an electric smart Fortwo will only reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 18%, compared to the conventional Fortwo diesel. Similarly, only a 25% reduction separates the all-electric Nissan Leaf from a VW Golf 1.6 TDI Bluemotion, even though the Nissan costs £7,500 more than the German car, after any government grant has been included.

While Which? applauds car manufacturers for making ‘greener cars’, it commented that the carbon footprint of EVs might not be as small as people are led to think, especially while the majority of domestic electricity is produced from burning fossil fuels.
Even so, electric cars still produce slightly less carbon dioxide than the most efficient diesel cars in their respective classes but this makes them far from being ‘Zero Emission’ propositions. As far as I am aware, power stations are not fitted with giant catalytic converters (although filtering mediums are used in some of the latest plants) either and so it is possible that electric cars could produce indirectly more damaging pollutants in greater quantities, including soot, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide, than the latest diesel cars.

Although the prospect of mass-produced electric cars is an exciting one, I hope that their true real-world environmental impact is studied carefully by our policy makers, so that drivers of conventionally fuelled cars are not penalised unfairly on pollution grounds, because Which? has provided a reasonable argument that proves that the reasons for driving an electric car are not quite as compelling as we have been led to believe.

Electric cars put under the environmental spotlight