10 of 17: Electric vehicles ready to hit Intercity Highways

Reducing our dependance on cars could be one of the biggest sustainability challenges, and one which COP17 is unlikely to find a solution to. But do we really need to give up cars to be sustainable? In our 10th article in a series of 17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17Roger East of Green Futures looks at the spread of the electric car across the UK, potentially bringing about a significant reduction in carbon emissions.  

Think electric car, and what you probably see is a nippy vehicle in a quirky colour being parked with expert precision and zero revs in a tiny space in a crowded city. But recharging points at service stations up and down the UK’s motorways could change this vision altogether. Launched this summer by renewable power company Ecotricity, it’s being called the world’s first national electric highway, offering drivers a free low-carbon top-up for their batteries in the time it takes to drink a cappuccino. Now picture a sleek sedan cruising up the M1 for a weekend in the Dales…

Until now, an understandable fear of getting stranded has made drivers highly cautious about taking longer journeys in an electric vehicle (EV). This so-called ‘range anxiety’ issue has been a major brake on their take-up. It has also seen EVs stereotyped as suited only to short urban hops – though it’s worth noting that 99.6% of all UK car journeys are less than 100 miles, which is within – or only a little above – the range of most modern EVs.

Using the new motorway recharging network sounds like simplicity itself. You register online with Ecotricity for a free swipecard to access the charging points, which can be found at a growing number of Welcome Break service stations. South Mimms on the M25 was the first, and all 27 will have them by 2013. A fast top-up can take around 20 minutes or there’s a full charge available if you’ve got two hours, a more likely option for those enjoying a lazy lunch. The regular three-pin slow charge socket is an option for those on an overnight stopover.

Welcome Break’s CEO Rod McKie is right behind the initiative which, he calculates, could help his customers make big savings on fuel. The network itself is free to use, and home-charging works out at just over 1p a mile. “A driver doing a year’s typical 8,500 miles of motoring could save almost £1,000 in petrol costs at today’s prices”, he calculates, “and around two tonnes in CO2 emissions.”

Of course, an EV isn’t necessarily low carbon: it could have nearly as large a footprint as a petrol car, depending on how the electricity is generated. In this case, though, the carbon saving is certain. Ecotricity is feeding enough wind and solar power into the grid to cover the charging stations’ requirements. If you stop off on the M4 at Reading, you can even recharge at a point connected directly to the Green Park wind turbine. As Ecotricity Founder Dale Vince puts it: “You’ll now be able to get around Britain using only the power of the wind. We’re creating the infrastructure to get Britain’s electric car revolution moving.”

But with UK motorists currently driving 250 billion miles a year, how would the UK’s electricity supply cope if everyone switched to EVs? The additional requirement would be nearly 60 terawatt-hours, 16% of the UK’s current annual grid demand. Vince’s answer is robust. “We could power all that with 12,000 of today’s wind turbines”, he says – or 6,000 of the next generation of higher output models.

Ecotricity figures suggest this would save 23 million tonnes of oil every year, and 71 million tonnes of CO2emissions. Most cars would charge at home overnight, so the impact on peak demand would be minimised. Smart systems should allow for many EVs to be sitting at home, feeding power back into the grid at the times when electricity use for other appliances is highest [see ‘Electric vehicles: energy storage solution?’].

That vision may seem some way off, with only 2,000 electric-only vehicles and just a few hundred plug-in hybrids on Britain’s roads so far. But the economic argument is tilting in their favour. The price premium, while still substantial, is offset by fuel cost savings that look ever more attractive in view of recent petrol and diesel price hikes and the reasonable expectation of worse to come.

Public confidence in the recharging infrastructure, however, remains critical. Until now, the UK’s 400-odd EV charging points have nearly all been in cities, more than half of them in London. The new network could give electric drivers the guts to go further.


17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the FutureImage courtesy of freefotouk on flickr