Thursday, April 16, 2009

Well, that's all right then

Our illustrious leaders, having prevaricated for the last six months whilst the UK motor industry has been slowly bleeding to death, have now finally declared their intentions. Not an old car scrappage scheme like those already running in most of the rest of the European Union - that will be left for the budget and will likely be the subject of another rant. No, instead of that, we're all going to be bribed into buying electric cars. This from the BBC:

Motorists will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 to encourage them to buy electric or plug-in hybrid cars under plans announced by the government.

Now, you might reckon I'd say this was a good idea. I like cars, after all. I've tried public transport in all its varied guises and I can quite happily say that it doesn't work. Not round here, at least. My options for getting to Aberystwyth - fifteen miles away and the nearest railway station - are on foot, on a bicycle or in a car. I could call a taxi, but that would cost me £30. And then another thirty to get back home again.

Public transport makes a lot of sense in big cities. It's more than a decade since last I drove a car in London and I'm in no hurry to repeat the experience. Public transport makes sense when travelling between big cities, too. But as soon as your starting point or eventual destination are any distance from the madding crowd, there is really only one option. Once you accept that, then the issues of carbon emissions, pollution and congestion can be addressed as engineering problems, and a quick trawl of the available literature will show that there are plenty of very bright people coming up with innovative solutions. Electric cars are just one of them.

So you might imagine I'd be very happy that our government has so embraced the wonder of electric cars that they want to give me five large ones to go and buy myself into the dream. Sadly it's not as simple as that.

First off, the proposed scheme isn't going to come into effect until 2011. That's after the next general election, at which the Labour administration is going to get a sound kicking. It's Cameron's to lose, basically. And the Tories aren't pledging anything to the motor industry right now. They seem to want us all to stick wind turbines on our roofs. So this scheme is in all likelihood never going to happen. It's just another bit of political eco-spin to fool the gullible into thinking they give a shit.

But let us assume, in a moment of Tolkienesque fantasy, that it will happen. Then we have another problem. With the exception of the Noddy-Car G-Whizz, there aren't currently any cars for sale that would qualify for this grant. Everyone lauds the Toyota Prius, but it can't be charged from the mains, and its green credentials are as muddy as my Hunter wellies. I can get better mileage from the Horse Doctor's Fiat Panda. Sure there are cars out there 'on the horizon', like the Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla roadster, but these are fabulously expensive - not the sort of vehicles that need replacing if carbon generation is going to be brought under control. The world needs an electric equivalent of the Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus - the everyday commuter and family cars that are responsible for the vast majority of emissions.

And then there's the small matter of charging the bloody things. Battery technology has come a long way, but it's still a fact that most of these electric cars will only be good for one half of the average daily commute. They'll need to be plugged in whilst we're at work, or doing the shopping, or whatever it is people use their cars for. Mayor Boris is trying to bully developers in London to fit 'charging stations' to all new parking spaces, but there's no evidence of anything similar being rolled out UK wide.

And finally there's the small matter of where all this electricity is going to come from. Coal and gas fired power stations, mostly, since no-one in government for the last decade has dared to grasp the nettle and build more nuclear plants, nor is there any coherent strategy for other renewable sources. Generating electricity from coal or gas, pumping it along hundreds of miles of low-efficiency cabling, and then using it to charge batteries to power electric cars actually produces more CO2 per kilometre than many modern cars, so we're already off to a bad start there. But there is another problem with using large power stations to drive small cars.

The UK is facing something of an energy crisis, thanks both to the dithering of our gallant leaders over the past couple of decades, and to our insane planning rules. Take the Severn Barrage project, for instance. This could generate almost ten percent of the UK's entire electricity requirements, if it ever gets built. It's been a serious engineering proposal for at least ten years and the latest round of political hot air has come up with a shortlist of ten options, which are now out for public consultation for two years. If, after two years, a decision can be made on just one of these options, then that won't be time for the bulldozers to move in. Oh no. First it will have to be put to a detailed planning decision. For a project of that size, a public planning enquiry will almost certainly be required, which could easily drag the whole process out another ten years. Which kind of begs the question: what the hell is the point of the whole public consultation exercise currently dawdling along like an elderly pensioner in need of new hips?

Likewise the government announced its choice of potential sites for new nuclear power stations yesterday - quietly since people tend to go a bit strange in the head whenever nuclear power is mentioned - and again after many long years of carefully manipulating public opinion. Surprise, surprise, most of these sites are actually where existing nuclear power stations are already operating. And yet even if it was agreed to start building one tomorrow, it wouldn't start to produce power for another twenty years.

A politician who wasn't constantly watching his popularity ratings might have used his overwhelming majority in the house to overrule this whole process, say 'this is in the national interest, it's going to happen here and it's going to happen now,' and the whole thing would be done already. That's how the French* build their nuclear power stations, and guess who's going to be building ours once we've wrung our hands enough and finally admitted we've no other options.

We are facing a serious shortage of electricity generation capacity in the next five to ten years as the existing nuclear power stations are taken off line. Even wind power hasn't lived up to its promise, with most turbines producing less than 30% of their optimum capacity, and most of the other promising generating technologies are perpetually 'ten years away' thanks to being starved of development grants.

So what does the government want us to do? It wants us to use more electricity.

Genius.


*much though it galls me to cite the French as evidence of good practice in governance.

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2 Comments:

Blogger John R said...

I remember studying the "nearly ready to go" Severn Barrage while I was at uni. The plans were all complete, everything had been checked and double checked... and then... nothing for 10-12 years.

April 16, 2009 11:04 pm  
Anonymous Ellen said...

I agree with you on the electric cars. The Prius is NOT a green vehicle. You'd be better off looking at the new Volkswagen exhaust-less diesel--which runs on biodiesel. It's a neat piece of engineering although it still needs to stand the test of time. If only Tesla could get its act together. The Chevy Volt may never happen the way the American auto industry is headed. Perhaps we should live like the Amish, and drive buggies everywhere. Of course, then we'd be up to our arses in horse shit...

April 17, 2009 2:15 am  

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