Building on the theme of my last blog, where I started to dip my toe in the water of moving to a low carbon economy, this piece considers how we get around.
Helpfully, perhaps (unless you are Jaguar Land Rover and were all in on diesel), Volkswagen’s ‘dieselgate’ seems to have accelerated the move to electric cars. There is no doubt that some great electric cars are now available. One of the features of electric motors is that they produce huge amounts of torque, meaning that those who drive with a heavy right foot needn’t be disappointed. However, this comes at the price of range and that remains a rather sticky challenge. I fret when my phone dips below 50% charge and the impacts of running out are limited to a temporary Spotify outage and the upside of brief freedom from work emails and calls. Being stuck out on the road and out of charge in your car is a rather different prospect. And herein lies the troubling issue with electric cars; batteries and charging them.
Battery technology, as we know from our phones and laptops, has long lagged behind the demands we place on them. Critically though, if there is widespread adoption of battery powered cars, we start to face the challenge of how we charge them when our energy production capacity is currently at pretty full stretch with the demands we currently place on it. Further, unless you have access to a fast charging station, it can take a long time to charge a battery to provide sufficient capacity for a half decent drive somewhere and this limits the practicality and flexibility we have come to expect from our cars. All of this though overlooks a rather unpalatable truth, which is that current batteries are full of materials such a lithium, cobalt and nickel that are both limited in supply and environmentally damaging to extract. Indeed, it has even been mooted that such materials could be sourced by mining asteroids (I kid you not) such is their potential value.
Many, many years ago I used to work with an architect who had a saying that has stood me in good stead many times since; ‘don’t solve the problem, get rid of it’. In this context, we were grappling with fitting a staircase into a corner of a floorplan that the senior partner had sketched in. No matter how we tried to solve the three dimensional challenge we couldn’t solve the problem. In the end, we got rid of the problem by moving the staircase somewhere else where it fitted perfectly.
I think the same may apply to battery powered cars and other vehicles. My feel is that this use of batteries is a short-term fix and that unless a radically different, cheaper, lighter, faster charging battery can be developed, this is a dead-end. My personal view, and as you will probably be aware, I am no scientist, is that hydrogen is the long-term solution to personal transportation. I know that hydrogen has its challenges; it requires a lot of energy to produce, requires platinum rather than lithium in its associated fuel cell and is more challenging to transport and fill a vehicle with than petrol, but it offers the benefits that water comes out the tail pipe, it is as quick to fill as a petrol car and there is a substantial distribution network (converted petrol stations) that doesn’t place additional demands on the electricity grid. It’s a hotly contested debate, and a lot of money has gone into lithium batteries with a lot of manufacturers, but I suspect it might be like the CD or DVD; materially better than what went before, but rapidly replaced by streaming, or in this case, hydrogen, after a generation of use.
We shall see. In the meantime, my next car is almost certain to be battery powered!
And, of course, this debate applies equally to air and sea travel. Planes currently contribute 2.5% of global CO2 emissions whilst cargo ships, which transport around 90% of the world’s goods, emit around 3% of global CO2. Each is about the same as Germany emits in a year. Tackling these will require some bright minds and new technologies. In the meantime, we must reduce our reliance on so much stuff moving so freely around the world and find more sustainable solutions to what we consume on a day to day basis.
Bringing this back to some of the experiences of lockdown, there are hints that such changes may not be so entirely bad. Shopping local has been a bonus with fresher, higher quality food the outcome at a price, but that is something that we may just have to get used to. Eating locally and seasonally has introduced a new dynamic to meals. That sounds terribly middle class, smug and alright for me, but before supermarkets with global supply chains dominated the weekly shop, we all ate what was grown on our doorsteps and we were all probably far healthier as a consequence.
One other feature that has been clearly evident, is the large number of people who now walk or cycle past my house who were previously nowhere to be seen. The joys of walking, running and cycling around your local area are manifest. One of the most uplifting experiences I have looked forward to at the end of a day spent glued to a screen and having made barely a thousand steps over 14 hours, is to walk to the top of the hill near my house and watch the sun go down. Normally, by the time I have got the train back from the office and had something to eat, I am worn out and it is getting dark. Simple pleasures that we otherwise overlook can bring way more joy than a pot of Ben & Jerry’s and some Netflix after work.
And, I suspect the same will apply come holiday time, for the next year or two at least. I am somewhat ashamed to say that whenever I get the chance I jump on a ferry or a plane and head south, largely to try and get some certainty that my precious few days away from work will be blessed with warmth and sunshine. As a consequence, I have never rambled through the Lake District, stayed on a farm in Suffolk, taken tea in Harrogate or been surfing in Cornwall. These too, I would suspect, are life affirming experiences. And, as far as the weather goes, with global warming, who knows what you’re going to get anywhere these days.
If ever there was a time to get to know where we live, to celebrate our country and to do our bit to help the economy by keeping our pounds on these shores rather than halfway round the world, it has to be now and that has to be a good thing.
In ten years of working at Public Sector Plc, I have travelled to many corners of the country that I would otherwise never have visited. I have always found this to be an enjoyable and, at times, eye-opening experience. Who can say if and when air travel will become both carbon neutral and affordable, so taking the time to explore our country in your low carbon car may be the best holiday going.
If you want a hybrid, your choices are broad. Pure battery power, whilst containing some great cars, significantly reduces your options. If you want to drive a car with a hydrogen fuel cell, life is made easier, as there are only three available to buy today, a Hyundai, a Toyota or a Honda. However, if you were fretting over charging your battery powered car, fuelling your hydrogen car could take the stress to another level. As of February 2020, there were 13 hydrogen fuelling stations in the UK and five of these are inside the M25.There are two further stations in the south of England, two in the west Midlands, one in South Yorkshire, two in Wales and one in Scotland.
That’s the route planning taken care of then! Bon voyage.