/ Motoring

Electric cars – stop saying they’re emission free

Car with electricity streak

Everyone’s talking about it – ‘save the planet, drive a hybrid’ or ‘electric cars, they’ll stop global warming.’ But surely the focus is in the wrong place, since none of these cars are actually green.

Toyota and Honda were first with well-engineered petrol-electric hybrids. And now Nissan plans to launch its all-electric ‘Leaf’, with other makers to follow.

But are they the answer? They’re quite efficient it’s true, partly because they’ve been optimised to death, but mostly because they have regenerative brakes. Dumping the long-lived tradition of wasting all that braking power (as heat), they recover significant energy, storing it to propel the car round town.

But hybrids still burn fossil fuels, emitting noxious gases into the environment. Ok, maybe not in the city, but certainly on the motorway.

Electric cars aren’t so ‘green’

It’s even less clear with so called ‘emission-free’ electric cars. The electricity powering them has to be generated somewhere, and that’s more likely to use fossil fuels than renewables.

Again, the emissions are simply transferred to a different place. Out of sight, out of mind? And even this ignores the inefficiency of moving electricity round the grid.

Then there’s the inconvenience. You only get about a quarter of the range (90-100 miles) of a conventional car – no match for modern needs. And filling a conventional tank takes minutes, compared to several hours to recharge an electric car.

It’s like reverting back to a coach and horses – the animals’ (batteries) limitations set the pace and every so often you have to wait for them to recover.

When will electric cars be truly ‘green’?

What’s the answer? Vastly bigger capacity batteries with a shorter charge time? Or a way of ‘changing the horses’ – swapping the battery pack in an instant?

Sure, all those clever engineers should focus on maximising efficiency. All cars should have regenerative braking, efficient power-trains and sound aerodynamics. But we need an urgent effort before electric cars are truly viable:

  • Renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro-electric and hydrogen) to generate serious sustainable power.
  • Better batteries or giant capacitors to let us store more energy and recharge faster.
  • And while we’re reliant on fossil fuels, we need practical ‘carbon capture’ – instead of pumping pollution into the atmosphere, we should store it in tanks (yes, that means no exhausts) and empty it as part of our motor’s routine service.
  • Why not even remove chimneys from power stations and pump the waste back to where it came from (into the earth’s crust)?

Until these eco goals are met, electric cars and their hybrid cousins will only ever be ‘green’ when compared to their traditional predecessors – the common petrol car.


Sorry – I think you are missing the point.

Electric cars are in themselves emission free. That is as they operate they do not emit pollutants.

Hybrid cars are definitely NOT emission free – as they use fossil fuel to move and that emits pollutants.

Petrol cars are far worse than Hybrid cars as all their motive power comes from fossil fuel emitting the maximum pollutants for a given Km.

The question you should be asking is WHY the facilities do NOT exist NOW to exploit the advantage of the Electric Car.

The advantage of the electric car have been known for many years – The technologies for producing that motive power have been known since I first became interested in the middle 50’s.

Remember when petrol cars were invented – petrol was bought by the bottle from the chemist – It wasn’t long before OIL companies built petrol stations to supply the demand across the country.

Why haven’t battery stations been built?? . This would be a practical method of gaining motive power – swapping the battery (could be done with clips – no effort required). Really for a town car 100 mile capacity is all that is required..

Why not use induction to pick up charge? The big disadvantage with electric only cars as they stand is the need for access to a charging point for those of us without a garage.

The reason for the very slow progress of the electric car is OIL.

pickle says:
17 August 2010

Electric cars are emission free at the point of use. BUTas above, the fuel thy use id far from emission free. Hybrid cars are no better. It seems to me that the best cmpromise is to go for a diesel engined car with very low emissions. There are many such – look for those with no annual tax.

The whole point as far as I’m concerned is the Electric Car is the only one with the potential to be entirely pollutant free using renewable generation – AND – not use fossil fuels AT ALL. except for very limited lubrication.

All of the pollutant free generation technologies have been known about for many years – Certainly since I took my Degree in the late 50’s – (I did research in electrical generation) That’s 55 years ago – The petrol stations did not take 55 years to become universally available. The reason is the OIL Industry had a vested interest in selling vast amounts of petroleum products –

Whereas I think the reason for the very tardy progress of Electric Cars is again the Oil Industry not investing in electrical distribution a major reason for small numbers of electrical cars. .


one can imagine a story in a newspaper in some 20 years time leading with ‘new power stations to be built to provide power to deal with the 25 million electric cars to enable the after work recharge between 5 & 7 o,clock’. these of course will be either coal or nuclear, unless we want to be subject to the whims of the russian authorities which may change frequently, & buy gas from them. We cannot guarantee the wind will blow continuously, carbon capture has not been proved to work on the scale proposed at present, & is a potential timebomb for future generations which leaves nuclear with similar characteristics. The problem is too many cars & too many people, this planet will have a solution for that in the fulness of time. So unless we want to limit ourselves to perhaps one car per household or an annual mileage cap for every car perhaps with a ban on obvious wastes of energy such as motor racing & t.v. shows like top gear, to emphasize the problem, it is difficult to see what can be done.

I’d just like to add a few things to the conversation …

I would suggest that 80-90% of all car journeys are within the 100 mile range.
(I believe that the Tesla Roadser holds the current world record at 313 miles on a single charge, and will easily do 200 miles).

Fast charges are available on electric cars that can re-charge the battery to 80% in about 20-30 mins. I realise that this is not the quick as a petrol tank refill, but could be managed as part of planned break at a service station for example on those longer, planned journeys.
(The fast charge can also be used proportionally, i.e. 10mins 30 miles, 5 mins 15 miles).

30 years ago people ‘laughed’ at the emerging mobile phones with big batteries, short talk time and little infrastructure. Today the batteries have become smaller, lighter and last much much longer. The infrastructure has developed enormously and the mobile phone is part of our busy modern day lives (together with laptops, cordless drills, electric toothbrushes, etc).
Surely it would make sense to believe that the technology behind batteries is only going to improve with time.

Clearly cars are here to stay, until someone events the teleport. However, the fossil fuels used to power it are going to get more expensive and then eventually run out.

Electricity can be generated via fossil fuels, wind, solar, wave, nuclear, etc. Petrol can only be created from fossil fuels.

Lastly, I don’t fully understand the after work re-charge Andy.
Do you mean the charge when people get home from work, or the charge to enable them to get home form work ?

Nick Phillipps says:
19 August 2010

Hydrogen power anyone? Better efficiency and only emissions water…. never refill your washer bottle.

Urine powered cars look like they might be the next big thing. If you run out of fuel, just pull over at the side of the road and take a leak into tank. Kills two birds with one stone. http://bbc.in/aPNgrm

What is more important is that the government scientists have now published a report that categorically states that electric cars are more polluting over their lifetime when compared to modern eco diesels.

This only became evident when they added the overheads of changing the batteries every three years.

They also said that because of the short range of the batteries, it was almost impossible to do the ‘average annual mileage’ figures that they used.

So the only advantage that electric cars have is that they don’t emit poisons as you drive. The downsides are so numerous as not worth listing.

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said a million times: with current technology, electric cars are a total waste of the earth’s resources.

Roll on the Olympics when all those competitors and dignitaries are stranded with flat batteries.

Electricity has a really major advantage – the infrastructure to delver the energy to the energy outlet – be it station or home – is already here cable – we use it to get electric power to home and work – plus the cost of transporting the energy through the wires would be almost zero as electricity transmission is VERY efficient-

No wasteful petrol tankers – no hydrogen tankers – so it would be far better for the environment.

No urine tanks (Frankly I doubt if I could produce enough to get to the end of my street). – not too sure what happens to the by-products. such as urea.

Also agree with the idea that battery technology would improve both as to capacity and recharge rate.

As far as I know the standard petrol car has a range of 300 miles and hasn’t changed much over the years. So that would be the range to aim for. I can easily see electric cars having that range soon..

I certainly rarely drive more than 150 miles in a week.

I really do think fossil products should be reserved for more important uses than simply wasted on transport

One thing that’s being missed in this discussion is that electric cars tend to be charged overnight. Electricity generated at night has a significantly lower carbon impact than that generated during the day, because a much greater proportion of it comes from nuclear.

Whatever your opinion of nuclear power-stations, unlike coal and gas which are fired up at peak times, nuclear tends to grumble along through the night (the so-called ‘nuclear baseload’) – and that means electric car batteries, which seem to be a relatively efficient way of storing this nuclear-generated electricity (compared to other storage patterns), are powered with lower carbon electricity. Magic!

We’re going to be talking about a new way of paying for electric cars in the next cars podcast: buy the car, lease the battery. That’s what Renault have in mind and we spoke to them. Don’t forget that Renault and Nissan have formed an electric alliance, and Toyota are planning an all electric model for 2012. Podcast is at http://www.which.co.uk/podcasts/

Pip Allen says:
2 November 2010

I agree whole-heartedly with Nick Phillips!! An old “Top Gear” I saw had a very efficient hydrogen-powered prototype – Toyota, I believe – that James May tested in USA. Why is not every car manufacturer OBLIGED to be aiming at this, or solar-powered for the LONG term, not the next 20-50 years? If we keep encouraging car programmes & magazines & culture as being the mark of “real” men, we are not really challenging the “need” for a nice new fleet car, or cars as a “status” symbol while the whole planet heats up, and the 3rd world especially bears the brunt of the climate impact. We think WE have floods etc…! We need to wake up and smell the petrol before it’s too late.

Pauline says:
29 December 2010

Hi folks. Have just come across this site and read all your comments with great interest, but no comments yet from anyone with an electric car?! We have been running one of the first generation all electric cars, technically a quadricycle, for over 2 years as our sole car. It has proved IDEAL for our circumstances. We drive less that 300 miles pa, always very short journeys and the battery of our petrol car kept dying form lack of use. Seemed very eco-unfriendly to drive it around just to keep the battery happy. Its main use is to ferry us (2 oldish ladies) and heavy weights eg bags of compost, harvest, etc to and from our beloved allotment which we could not run without some sort of vehicle. Very expensive to buy for what you get but we chose the 2 seater with huge boot, a doddle to park, pennies to run, no tax, free parking outside our house when we need it (yes, petrol vehicle have to pay for this in our London Borough) and no congestion charge for those travelling in central London. Charged using our solar panels when sun is shining, otherwise Good Energy electricity when not, which supply only 100% renewable energy, so as emmission free as we can get.

Cons? Of course! Apart from the initial expense, the main problem with our particular make and model is the lack of infrastructure – after the supplier went into administration, our nearest service garage is over 12 miles away. If they go out of business, it is goodbye to our car. Thankfully they will do a service on our drive, but if it breaks down (twice so far), and it has to go into the workshop, our insurance (good deal with ETA) gets us there but a heafty bill to get it back home again.

All in all , it has been good for us but the lack of infratructure is a big negative. We will be looking seriously at the next generation of cars, (with the biggest boots) and local garages.

Brian says:
6 January 2011

The achilles heel of the electric car will always be the battery. Lack of storage capacity, slow recharge time, short life,weight and cost being the main problems. The nissan uses lithium ion batteries which must be slightly greener than a boot load of lead and sulphuric acid but there are still safety issues surrounding the lithium battery. Lithium is highly reactive with water and they can overheat and combust as happened some time ago with quite a few laptops using this same technology batteries. I presume crash tests have been conducted to find out what happens in the event of the batteries rupturing during an accident. The nissan batteries currently cost £8000 to replace and will last 7 to 8 years so thats £1000 per annum in fuel costs before you go anywhere. The range is quoted by nissan to be 100 miles but this will only be when the vehicle is brand new, the batteries capacity reduces gradually with each charge so say after 4 years it is probable that the range would have dropped by half. It may be that most people only use their car for short journeys but what do you do if you have one of these cars and you want to go further ************* for a holiday or an emergency.
I think the battery car is a dead end development and unfortunate diversion of resources away from research into new methods of personal transport forced on the car manufacturers by the green fanatics. It is definitely not emission free just because it does not have an exhaust pipe. When the power production emissions are taken into account, that is gas or coal burning station to produce steam to power the turbines, the losses in power generation, transformer and transmission losses, battery, control system and electric motor efficiency it is possible that there will not be a great deal of difference to that of a modern efficient internal combustion powered vehicle.

SPIKE says:
24 February 2011

1. Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant. It is a green house gas.
2. A majority of the USA Nissan Leaf owners, along with those on the waiting list, get a portion of their electricity from their solar panes.

It covers all of the misconceptions in this article. Ultimately you are misrepresenting electric vehicles and are part of the problem these technologies are yet to reach a mass (profit driven) market. Please get a grasp of physics before condemning electric cars so needlessly again.

Pieter Wessels says:
1 May 2011

Plenty of good discussion regarding the enviromental costs of charging the batteries. Is anyone considering the pollution caused by manufacturing the batteries in the first place? Not to mention the new alloys and metals required by the electric motors themselves?

We need a “cradle to grave” study of all three technologies: carbon fuel, hybrid and electric to really make an informed decision.

Only recently come across these discussions so sorry for the lateness of this comment.

One glaring omission in all the discussions of “green” cost i.e. greenhouse emission.
Everything that we manufacture has an emission “cost”. Lithium batteries have an extremely high emission cost – a vast amount of energy is needed to refine the components and then to put them together to make a working product. Much of this emission cost is reflected in the actual monetary cost. Batteries (lithium & lead) do have a high replacement cost – also a similarly high “green” cost. That is all in addition to the operating cost – the recharging emission cost.
Operating cost may be lower (but not zero!) but the replacement cost is much much higher.

The true energy cost – the “green” cost of a vehicle is reflected in it’s production cost as well as it’s operating cost.
If a car costs twice as much to buy then it (in rough terms) costs twice as much energy to make – IF it lasts the same length of time. If it only lasts half as long before it needs to be replaced then it is four times the “green” cost.

This leads us to the conclusion that the best way to make cars “greener” is to make them (and their components) last longer as well as to make them more operationally efficient.

Tme ro resurrect this discussion in the light of experience? Here’s my story! 2 years ago I sold my petrol Fabia and bought a 2nd-hand Vauxhall Ampera, 17,000 miles on the clock & cost me £15,250. Today my car’s probably worth £10,000 to £11,000 and now had 45,000 miles on the clock. It’s a plug-in hybrid, and for me the fact that I can plug-in is maybe the most important thing about it. Non-plug-in Hybrids such as Toyota Prius do an excellent job of providing you with an economical car, but the best thay can do is around 70 mpg if you’re lucky, and they do tend to have such tiny batteries and such feeble electric motors that you can only do a very few purely-electric miles when driving around town as low speeds. So you’re committed to burning petrol on pretty-much every journey, long or short, at least that’s how I see it. Let’s look at the majority of plug-in hybrids around today (Outlander, Golf GTE, …). By and large, these all have a large powerful petrol engine, and a much smaller electric motor. So to get full power (e.g. joining motorway from an uphill slip-lane, overtaking,…) the car has to fire up the petrol motor. No way round that. They also tend to have low-capacity batteries, typically about 8 kWh capacity, and are good for around 25 miles of pure-electric driving. So these are perfect cars if you have a daily mileage of 25 or less, with occasional long-distance journeys. Usually these will be charged up overnight when the grid has ample spare capacity for many millions of electric cars to be charged, and if you have E7 electricity you’re looking at about 2 to 3 p/mile electric-driving cost, .vs. closer to 12p/mile petrol cost. Call it 4 p/mile cost of paying arounf 15p/ kWh grid price. Your tyre-wear cost is maybe around 2p/mile, either way.
So what sort of plug-in hybrid should we be getting? Imho there are only 2 properly engineered hybrids which are reasonably affordable. And one of these is no longer available new, only 2nd hand. BMW i3 Rex is the first – maybe it’s pricey as a new car, but PCP deals may make this cheaper. Or buy 2nd hand. This car is really a pure electric EV, so has a large battery with a large pure-electric range. Newer models have larger batteries – excellent. There’s a small petrol 2-cylinder engine (up to 37 hp appx) in the boot which can run gently to extend your range, or can get you out of an emergency where for some reason you ran out of electricity completely. But this engine isn’t 100% integrated into the car – for e.g. waste heat from it is lost – cannot heat the car’s interior in winter. Also the petrol tank’s small, about 2 gallons. All interior heating is electric, albeit done efficiently. But it’s a great car. Got electricity and need full power for that overtake? No problem, instant full electric, silent, pollution-free acceleration. The same instant full-electric-power applies to my other choice.
2nd car is a 2nd hand Vauxhall Ampera = Chevrolet Volt, only about 1300 of these in UK. This has smaller battery than i3, 10.4 kWh useable, gives me typically 45 miles range in summer, 35 in winter with heating & aircon in use. This is noticeably more than the 8 kWh hybrids still being made today. Also, Ampera is only using 65% of the true battery capacity – as a result these batteries are proving to be extremely long-lived. One Volt in USA has done 100k miles electric + 200k on petrol, still going perfectly. GM have never replaced any Volt/Ampera battery due to battery degradation! This battery is probably good for 150,000 to 200,000 miles in UK’s gentle climate. Petrol side of things is a 1.4 4-cylinder cast-iron block engine generating up to 75 hp of electricity, with 7 gallon tank. In winter, the engine heats the car – it’s a fully conventional petrol car when in petrol mode, unlike i3 Rex. Electric motor is 150 hp, 0-60 in <10 secs, so it's actually a very nippy & quick car – as are just-about all EVs. Being so petrol-car like, I can belt up & down the motorways non-stop all day if I like, just put more petrol in, and I'd get 40-45 mpg driving fast, or up to 60 mpg gently at lorry speeds. You can think of this car as being a conventional petrol car, but with a cheap gallon of petrol in the tank each night courtesy of the grid, and that gallon can be used to drive up to 45 miles through towns/cities with zero pollution emitted, compared to petrols & diesels.

People say that hydrogen's the future; maybe for lorries/busses, but not for domestic cars. Hydrogen is NOT a fuel!!! There is NO hydrogen-well or simple supply where you get it for free. It HAS to be separated-out, e.g from hydrolysis of water, or more usually by a high-temperature process (steam-reforming) involving burning lots of gas/oil to generate steam, which then splits methane into hydrogen & carbon mmonoxide. You can of course use green solar electricity to generate the steam, crack the methane, and get out the hydrogen and put that into a hydrogen-fuelled car. But why? There's a lot of inefficiency & cost in this process. It's far, far simpler & more efficient to simply put that electricity straight into the car. Hydrogen is extremely difficult to store & handle. The hydrogen refuelling stations being built cost a small fortune each, and need very high-tech and very high-pressure equipment. This really is not a sensible route for high-volume multi-millions of cars. The same applies to hydrolysis – it's a VERY inefficient way to use electricity to separate-out hydrogen, which will then get turned (wastefully) back into electricity in your hydrogen car!!! Bonkers, TBH. But feasible for large heavily-used vehicles which may need very fast refuelling, e.g busses/lorries/police cars/ambulances.

Annually I'm doing around 12000 miles. It turns out I'm doing about 1/2 on electricity, 1/2 burning petrol. Most of my journeys are short range, so the 45-mile range I have covera all my daily local trips. A full recharge at home can be done in as little as 4 hours; this car has no "Rapid" charging capability, it's a slow charge only. But I also have solar panels, a 4kW East-facing system, and I'm retired, so car is often at home on driveway during the day. So on sunny/partly-sunny days I'll charge it at anywhere from 1.5 kW to 3 kW, my choice, and if the panels are generating that much (I max out at 3kW on a perfect midsummer day at 10-11 am) then I can do a full refill during the morning. Car takes 12 kWh for a full refill – more than the 10.4 useable I get – that's the charging efficiency, appx 85%. Panels can generate 25 kWh during the course of a perfect day, but average is more like 15 kWh during 3 summer months. So with a bit of patience I'm managing to do about 3/4 of my summer charging 100% from excess solar electricity. If my wife would let me, I'd happily stick another 4kW system on West-side of roof, and then be able to do even more solar charging. And if I were commuting to work every day, I'd happily have 2 EVs, charge one during the day while driving the other. That's how good these EVs are! Or, maybe I should change to an i3 Rex, with far more range that I usually need, as this would let me trickle-charge the car gradualy over the w/e, whenever the sun shines, and by having a huge battery (150 miles-ish) I'd be able to guarantee always having say 50 miles available. This would reduce my use of petrol even more! But my current overall figures are 79.5 mpg over last 20k miles or so, and the town driving has been emission-free, so that has to be far, far better than a conventional car. What about other particulate emissions? Tyre wear no worse than standard petrol car, no change there. Brake dust? Zilch. 99% of braking is electric, anly the last walking-pace to zero is mechanical. There's unmeasurable wear on any of my 4 disks, they & the pads will never need replacing, in fact these cars have been known to fail an MOT because the rear disks have had so little use they've rusted up!!! So once a week I brake gently while in Neutral, that by-passes the regen and actually polishes them up a bit!

People say that electric cars are heavy. Yes my Ampera weigh around 1700 Kg, and an Octavia's around 1300, but the extra weight really is no problem. Yes you use a bit more power to accelerate, but when you brake, the braking regenerates the battery so you get maybe 75% of that energy back. Weight really is not an issue with EVs. My Ampera is as steady as a rock when on motorways in high winds; pooled water is very unlikely to aquaplane me. And the smoothness of an electric drivetrain seems to help tyres last – I'm still on my original Michelin energy savers with about 3mm tread all round.

Yes there are other limitations – I only have 4 seats, and GM didn't plan for any tow-bat to be fitted to cannot take small trailer to the tip. Boot space is smaller than I'd like, about VW Polo sized, but being a hatchback I can live with that. Otoh I'm 100% independent of the charging-station mess we currently have in UK, and I have a 1/2-electric solution to my motoring needs. The future? Within about a year we'll see more 200 mile range, affordable EVs here (GM Bolt, where are you???), and with improving battery tech there are more improvements to come. Start integrating car batteries into home-battery systems (made from part-degraded retired EV cars, I'm working on my own ex-Leaf 4kWh setup) as well, coupled with solar-panel aware smart meters, variable tarriffs acc to availability of renewable and rather variable (wind, wave, solar) electricity, and we have the making of a robust & well backed-up electricity supply of ever-greener power. We wil gradually become less dependent on the grid over time, but the grid will always be needed as a distribution network to balance supply & demand, nationally & internationally.

It’s incredible that the manufacturers of these expensive cars have not worked out that brake disks should be made of a suitable grade of stainless steel that does not rust.

Well done with using solar power to charge your batteries. I’m hoping that when electric vehicles become more popular we will learn to drive less aggressively and at slower speeds to conserve battery capacity. It would make our roads safer too.