It’s not inappropriate to step back and consider the global resources and environmental aspects of power for personal road transport. Back in the 1970s, reserves of crude oil were a big talking point, and the term ìPeak Oilî was coined to represent the unknown future date when world oil production would peak, and thereafter fall away. Earlier predictions were for it to happen in 1995, which obviously proved entirely wrong, with the continuing discoveries of vast new oil fields. More recently the figure had been put at somewhere between 2015 and 2030, and quite possibly before 2020! But now we have seen the rise of fracking to release oil (and gas) from shale rock, and also the rise of natural gas, once a not particularly valuable by-product of crude oil production, but now a key factor in world energy supply. Fracking has, in particular, affected the USA, where their crude oil production had peaked back in 1970, but is now back to nearly 90 per cent of that figure!
International attitudes to using fossil fuels have changed though, because of their accepted effects on global warming. As a result, most industrialised western countries are switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources ñ wind, solar radiation, biomass sources, geothermal energy, hydro-electric power, although the future of nuclear power is in the melting pot. At the same time, developing nations like China, India and Indonesia are expanding their industrial activities, and consuming more oil, and ìdirtyî coal. On balance though, coal and crude oil consumption has started to fall, but this has been countered by an equivalent growth of natural gas usage. We may well see the next world economic recession bring about ìPeak Oilî and a softening of crude oil and oil product prices.
So we need to consider the energy sources used to produce our grid electricity. The UK has a target to produce 30 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and is presently not too short of that target, depending on the season and time of day. As coal for UK power generation has been phased out, natural gas has grown to represent nearly half of the energy source, and it is far cleaner and more efficient than the coal it has replaced. Supported by growing contributions from renewable sources, the carbon count, in terms of grams of CO2 per kWh of UK grid electricity, at its best of 160 to 180g/kWh, and one third of what used to be the average figure of around 550g/kWh, only a few years back. The key factor, though, is peak demand, when older and dirtier generation equipment often has to be used. Too rapid a growth of electric road transport and excessive demand for charging electricity, could erode the environmental benefits, particularly if expansion of nuclear power generation fails to materialise.
So, as diesel drivers, what do the figures really mean, if we are perhaps thinking of switching over to electric power? The superficial benefits in terms of carbon dioxide emissions are obvious, as is recognised in lower government taxation. But, with dirtier electricity generation at the higher levels of demand created by a rapid switch to electric road transport, the environmental benefits of electric power for cars could be severely reduced. That’s why management of charging demand is very important. And globally, China, along with the USA and India, still use vast amounts of coal for electricity generation ñ 40 per cent of the world’s electricity. Countries with such resources will not give them up easily, so a worldwide move to electric power for transport is not necessarily as environmentally beneficial as might have been presumed, if their electricity is as dirty as ours once was, and could become again, if we don’t build more clean power generation capacity.
Then we have taxation. In Britain, every fossil fuel car replaced by an electric car loses taxation income for the government ñ around £1,000 a year, and there’s no way that the books will balance without that tax loss being somehow replaced. Those who think that going electric means a huge drop in costs should be very aware of that hidden situation. Throw in global political turmoil that could threaten oil and gas supplies, and the clean future may not be quite as simple if electricity supply struggles to meet demand.