Electric cars – not so fast

I have suggested before that electric cars were not quite the panacea they seem to have become for our politicians. I know President Macron said he wanted French cars all electric by 2040 (although India thinks they’ll have the same 10 years earlier). And Britain copied the French timetable. So far so aspirational.

But in fact whilst I have also earlier celebrated Cornish Lithium the situation for the other battery essential, cobalt, is even worse than previously thought.
60% comes from the corrupt and ill-governed ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo DRC where mining is a sort of gold rush for the best placed.The chart below from the article shows that there is not much competition:

But the revelation that “If each of the billion cars on the road were replaced today with a Tesla Model X, 14 million tonnes of cobalt would be needed—twice [the] global reserves. ” is rather worrying. So either further supplies have to discovered, technology has to change, or electric cars are not quite the cheap, climate friendly panacea we had hoped.

Indeed electric cars, whilst representing a less polluting alternative to their petrol equivalents still ’emit’ particles but these will come from road and road painting abrasion and tyre abrasion – all of which amount to very small particulates, which are still problematic in towns, particularly in dry weather. And of course asbestos brake linings are responsible for the most harmful particles of all. In short, electric cars are green – er but not great.

If we are going electric we must go for trains. Regenerative braking allows you to reuse power, steel wheel on steel rail is much more frictionless than rubber on road, long distance journeys are bound to be faster without the 20-30 minute refuelling time every 150 miles or so, and for similar travel flows railways generally use less land than roads. Additionally trains are much safer (although, admittedly roads are responsible for many more journeys) 5 are killed and 66 seriously injured every day on our roads whilst on rail the daily average figures are just under 1 killed (including suicides, which account for the overwhelming majority) and just over over 1 seriously injured (including trespassers, attempted suicides and passengers on board trains). Electric trains also mean frequency can be improved for a marginal cost and acceleration is always much improved.

Nonetheless the November budget talked up electric cars but our illustrious Minister of Transport has cancelled or postponed much of the rail electrification that was previously promised, whilst indicating, if I recall, a desire to reopen previously closed lines for which there was alas, unsurprisingly! no budget.

He then increased the order for new bi-mode trains.These either have to lug around useless diesel engines and fuel when they are running on electricity or useless electrical collection and transforming equipment when they are running on diesel. They are therefore a compromise and always less efficient than thoroughbred competitors. They are more time consuming and complex to maintain and less reliable than pure electric and quite a bit heavier so wear the track more quickly. Indeed for those interested, there is a written summary of the pretty devastating disadvantages of not electrifying from Cardiff to Swansea here.

The same arguments will be true for the failure to electrify the Transpennine route, one which has frequent stops and a demanding terrain so is even more suited to electrification. Seemingly we’ll just have to put up with a Great Northern Forest to soak up the excess CO2 instead – albeit only £5.7 million of the £500 million required has been actually allocated by the government.

So we are being hoodwinked by not so green electric cars, whilst the already fairly green travel method of the train could be made much more so through electrification and without the depletion of scarce mineral resources. HS2 will of course be electric, but even if it gets built it will not be coming to a station near you anytime soon. We need lasting investment for the future and our ordinary local lines to turn electric as is progressing in Scotland.

If the government want to convince us of their green credentials when they’re thinking electric travel, they should be thinking train.

Both safer and greener than electric cars – and when people walk to and from stations they keep fit. That’s three plusses: isn’t that enough for this government?


  1. Sean Danaher -

    Battery technology is evolving all the time and whereas the current generation of Li-Ion batteries indeed uses cobalt (a lithium cobalt oxide cathode and a graphite anode), this issue hopefully can be overcome and more common metals used.

    I agree however that public transport is by far the best option. A bus service which stops closer to 3 miles to my home would be excellent but probably never to be in rural Northumberland.

    I agree also about rail, by far the greenest option and its very disappointing that the south Wales and Transpennine upgrades are not going ahead.

  2. Peter May -

    Thanks for the link. I was aware of the Aberdeen buses but as you suggest hydrogen needs a lot of electricity to create it so a source of renewable electricity is important. Are we anywhere near being able to consider hydrogen fuelled cars and vans I wonder?
    And why we haven’t yet got the Swansea tidal lagoon as an easy souce of renewable power (second highest tidal range in the world I think) I can never understand.

    1. Gordon McAdam -

      Given the development of renewables in Scotland a hydrogen-based solution might be feasible – but across the border??? As I understand it a hydrogen fueled vehicle is the same as petrol/diesel in terms of range and fuelling requirements. Against that my impression is that electric vehicles are quite some way from being very green.

      1. brian faux -

        Hydrogen is not a good substitute for petrol. It is even more volatile (ie dangerous) and requires very heavy containers to store in any volume ( or sophisticated active carbon type absorbers which don`t exist outside of the lab AFAIK)
        Best place for hydrogen tech is on a wind farm: nice and isolated – create, store and use H2 on site.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        that is my understanding also. Hydrogen is very light and because of thermodynamics moves very fast (1/2 kT per degree of freedom etc) and is very difficult to contain. It seems a very attractive idea, like Thorium reactors but the technology is not there yet.

      3. Peter May -

        So fine for buses but it would seem to rule it out for the family saloon. Mind you, if we can’t electrify we could try hydrogen fuelled trains…

  3. brian faux -

    Train or bus its still a bomb on wheels….many non lithium batteries on, or just under, the horizon.Even the humble lead/acid battery (made of very poisonous stuff but easily recycled with correct design) may have a future when coupled with a bit of new tech (check out the Ultrabattery developed by CSIRO- still a bit heavy for vehicles but I`d love one for my forklift).
    Enough – this is meant to be a POLITICAL blog.

    1. Peter May -

      Thanks, very interesting. (We seem to have moved on from bombs… Mind you see transport, accident free of spent nuclear waste to show that it can be done.) Particularly these quotes:
      “Hydrogen is a fuel that cannot be ignored. [Toyota’s] Hunt says this is particularly applicable in the heavy goods sector, where electric trucks are hampered by battery capacity and having to recharge using the power grid.”
      “In the UK today, around 1TW of energy is produced in renewables but not used,” says Hunt. “That’s excess generation that could be stored. This can produce around 18,000 tonnes of hydrogen – enough to power 90,000 vehicles for 12,000 miles.”
      This gives hope!

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