Monday, 28 March 2011

Electric Cars –To Buy or not to Buy

To buy, or not to buy: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The fumes and noise of conventional cars,
Or to take arms against our carbon troubles,
And buy an electric car.

Buying an electric car is a very small step to a greener lifestyle. The contribution to carbon reduction is minimal (until the electricity supply is decarbonised) but change has to start somewhere. The future will include electric cars and someone has to act as trailblazers to work out how an electric-car lifestyle works. There has to be a coming together of people’s expectations with the cars for sale. The car makers have to refine the technology using feedback from the early adopters to get the product optimised.

Current electric cars are being designed to deal with the expectations of conventional car drivers. Looking inside the bonnet of the Nissan Leaf, there is an aluminium cover that gives the appearance of a conventional engine; there is no need of course; the electric motor is a small item hiding away underneath.

Over time the designers will not need to masquerade their design to look like a conventional car but be able to take pride in being electric. The challenge requires innovative and cool design that appeals to the car-buying public.

I like the Nippy BMW E-mini but it is not a production car and is not on sale. I would like to buy a Tesla but that would be an expensive indulgence and not much use as a family car. I have decided to buy the slower, rather dull but practical Nissan leaf. I look forward to learning more about living with a production electric car.

Of course in all this discussion of electric cars, the much bigger step towards greener behaviour is not to use the car, by shopping locally, living close to our place of work and using the bicycle for short local journeys. The bigger challenge is not designing better electric cars but designing society better to be less reliant on the car.

Monday, 21 March 2011

National Climate Week

Here in the UK, today is the start of Climate Week with people across the country putting on events. The international climate negotiations grind slowly forward and show little prospect of an effective agreement anytime soon. Real action will come from individual governments that decide to lead despite resistance from laggard nations.

To deal with the challenge of climate change requires action from everyone, not waiting for top-down direction that is very slow in materialising. Every person, every community, every country and every region has to decide on their response. ‘We won’t do much until you act’, is not a defendable statement. ‘We act and expect you to follow’ is a much stronger mechanism to garner support and drive change.

In my local community, I co-chair the Pangbourne and Whitchurch Sustainability Group (PAWS) and we have a series of events through this week. This weekend we had an information desk in Pangbourne Village High Street and it was also our re-use day. People could put outside their house anything they no longer needed and other people could walk through the village to take it away. My pile of surplus clobber was gone within two hours leaving just one item that failed to find a new home – an old grill pan with evidence of burnt food fused into its base. So there is a limit to what can be reused!

This afternoon I will be speaking at a young people’s forum in which representatives of our local schools will be discussing what they think we can, and should, do. On Thursday evening, I will be chairing a Climate Change Open Forum in the village hall with world climate experts Sir Brian Hoskins and Professor Nigel Arnell.

PAWS is an example of action from the bottom up (perhaps it is also an example of what the government intends from the concept of ‘Big Society’). Within the group as co-chairman I can take very little of the credit, ideas arise from within our membership and working together we translate them into action. This is how to make real progress.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Our Windy Islands

The British Isles is one of the best locations in the world for wind, free energy that will not run out for as long as the sun shines. The sun heats the land and the oceans, warming the atmosphere and causing the complex weather patterns that swirl around the planet. There is no prospect of the sun going out any time soon so wind is one of the energy sources we can bet on for our future energy needs. If the sun does expire, humankind will need to find another planet, in another solar system, for human life to continue. This is the stuff of science fiction but indicates the challenges to come. To ship the world’s population off planet Earth to a place many lights years away will be a colossal undertaking. In the here and now, we have the much simpler challenge of climate change.

Tackling climate change requires the development of low-carbon technologies, deploying them in new infrastructure and changing the way the society and the economy operate. From a logical and engineering perspective this is doable; we can fix our addiction to fossil fuel. The biggest challenge is changing attitudes; we humans are irrational creatures and it is a complex business persuading us to behave differently. This is particular true of renewable energy from wind.

I first came face-to-face with the irrational no-turbine-anywhere-where-I-might-be-able-to-see-it attitude in 2008. The location being discussed (high ground near to Newbury in Berkshire) could now have a turbine or two supplying the town but the proponents of the project have backed off. The opposition from residents in the vicinity was vociferous and illogical. To state you do not like the look of wind turbines is a valid viewpoint but the arguments that are concocted to object to wind turbines are often disingenuous such as trumpeting the health hazards of living near one.

It is interesting to make a comparison with power lines. We accept power lines across our country as a blot on the landscape because without them we will not be able to turn on the television or boil the kettle. Power lines are a well documented hazard to human health but it is not a big danger, and we should not be unduly worried out it, but it is a bigger danger than that from wind turbines. We are happy to ignore the hazard of power lines but use the small theoretical dangers of wind turbines to stop them being erected.

We should realise that wind turbines are in the same category as power lines. These are necessary pieces of infrastructure so we can continue to watch the telly and boil the kettle. Instead of opposing them we should be planning where they go so that wind turbines become as ubiquitous as power lines.

Britain may have the best sites for wind turbines in the world, but Britain is also the worst place to get permission to proceed. We should be embarrassed at a planning system that allows a few irrational and very vocal people to drown out the voice of reason.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Electric Cars 3 of 4 - Charging Points

The Electric car and the infrastructure it needs are different to conventional cars. This much is obvious, but what the new system looks like is causing policy makers difficulty. They are getting trapped into the concept that electric cars replace conventional cars-one-for-one instead of realising that this is a game-changing transformation.

Policy makers are assuming that the electric car need to fill up (as a petrol car needs a filling station) so on-street charging points are assumed to be needed. This is seen as a barrier to sales of electric cars so considerable investment is planned to provide them. They fail to understand how electric car drivers (l am one) behave.

Electric cars are charged overnight from cheap-rate electricity whilst the car is parked at home and the owner is sleeping. We venture in the morning out being careful to plan our day to stay within the range of the battery. If there are on-street charging points they will presumably be expensive day-time tariff so not attractive. How about going outside my safe range? This is not something I will do because there is likely to be a charging point; I need a guarantee that there will be a charging point. I can go outside my safe range to visit a friend for lunch and agree to charge the car in their driveway. I am not going into a town outside my range planning to use a charging point unless it is reserved for me. Someone else might be parked at it or it is broken and I am stranded.

A network of public charging spaces will see very little use and are a wasted investment.

What would be very useful are charging parking spaces at work sites. These can be reserved for a particular employee allowing them to commute safely beyond the range of the battery. The infrastructure here would ideally include a roof over the car park with solar panels feeding into the grid and providing a good deal of the electricity going into the batteries of the cars parked beneath.

Forget the public charging infrastructure; instead channel tax incentives to business to fit solar panels to their car parks and charging points for employees.