Can all new cars sold in the UK be Electric by 2040?
The great majority of the UK’s private transport capacity consists of cars running on diesel and petrol. The infrastructure put in place to facilitate this represents a very large investment by society over decades. It has become abundantly clear that fuel alternatives are now required, due to the pressing need to cut carbon emissions, reduce pollution from health damaging gases such as nitrous oxides, as well as long-term concerns about the availability and security of supply of liquid transport. Due to the large proportion of total journeys that current car use represents and their accompanying infrastructure, it will not be economically viable to substitute their use with public mass transit in the form of rail and buses, still essential parts of the UK’s low carbon transport infrastructure.
In light of the recent government proposal to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, it merits looking at whether this is a viable proposal. Will there be sufficient energy capacity and technological innovation to make this transition possible?
The goal of replacing petrol with electric cars is part of wider efforts to lower carbon emissions. One of the major ways the UK has successfully lowered greenhouse gas emissions has been via decarbonising electricity production. The promotion of renewable energy, alongside the substitution of coal with lower carbon gas and nuclear, has substantially lowered emissions whilst maintaining power generation capacity. For example, just 4 years ago less than 10% of power generation came from renewables, whereas the figure is now closer to 25%. Electric cars will help the UK further reduce emissions by decarbonising private transport, but they do present challenges. They will put further demand on the grid and will require the installation of additional generating capacity.
As the proportion of generating capacity on the National Grid from renewables rises further, this will present challenges with variability of voltage. This will be compounded by the widespread use of electric vehicles. If total energy generation capacity is required to be increased by a factor of 50% to provide the infrastructure for all of these vehicles, as some estimates have put forward, this may simply not be financially viable. However, with sufficient planning and technological innovation, the amount of additional capacity required may be substantially less than the highest estimates: car share schemes and centrally located rent-able autonomous vehicles can reduce the number of total cars required. This, along with the development of rapid charge vehicles with longer range and innovative management strategies, such as using vehicles as temporary storage capacity that can run power back into the grid, may also help. Many charging points for vehicles could also be autonomous; relying on, for example, solar PV and battery technology, which would also reduce the strain on the grid.
Converting the UK’s private transport fleet from hydrocarbon vehicles to electric ones will undoubtedly present substantial technical challenges. With appropriate management strategies, technological innovation and investment, however, the target of ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 should be achievable.
- C. Moran, 2017
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