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Electric cars will not save the day

We won’t be getting our shiny new electric cars anytime soon, according to Cuneyt Kazokoglu in the Financial Times:

“The popular claim that a surge in electric cars will hasten the arrival of peak oil demand is undermined by the data.

“The majority of the world’s cars will remain powered by petrol, also commonly known as gasoline, for at least the next two decades and this will drive oil demand, according to data from Facts Global Energy. With the number of passenger vehicles expected to grow to 1.8bn by 2040, the energy consultancy estimates only 10 per cent will be accounted for by electric cars and a further 20 per cent by hybrids.”

The first problem is that without huge government subsidies, such as those in Norway and – until recently – Denmark, there would be far less demand:

“When the [Danish] incentive was dropped in January 2016, electric car sales plunged 80 per cent from the previous year.”

But high volume sales are a necessary driver for technical improvement.  This is essential to improving batteries.  A battery pack with sufficient energy density to carry a couple of people the same distance as can be achieved in a petrol or diesel car would add tens of thousands of pounds to the vehicle price:

“It is not possible to quickly increase the amount of distance travelled unless you add more batteries to a car, which means more weight and, in turn, a reduction in how far you can go.”

This is not helped by the current global oversupply of oil, which has prompted increased conventional car sales.  These new petrol and diesel cars will remain in the vehicle fleet for at least a decade.

Production capacity is another stumbling block.  Although the percentage by which electric car sales has increased in recent years looks spectacular, this is because we began at a very low base.  Just half a million electric cars were produced worldwide in 2016:

“A case in point is the Nissan Leaf, now one of the world’s bestselling and affordable electric cars. Since its launch six years ago, cumulative sales of the Leaf amounted to just 250,000. While its parent group sold almost 10m vehicles last year, less than 1 per cent were electric…

“Even with the most generous electrification assumptions, it is hard to see a ‘peak’ in petrol demand followed by a subsequent drop.  A more likely scenario is it continues to grow for decades to come.”

Kazokoglu’s conclusion is depressing reading for anyone who has bought into the cornucopian myth that we can simply swap renewables for fossil fuels and then carry on with business as usual.  This is because, along with bikes and scooters, cars are the easiest vehicles to electrify.  Weight-wise, the average car need only carry the weight of a couple of humans and a few bags of shopping; and most often only for a couple of miles.

To acknowledge that we cannot electrify the car fleet in anything like the time required, is to acknowledge that the climate and fossil fuel crises looming ahead of us are existential.  There is simply no way that we are going to electrify trucks, tractors, mining plant, ships and aeroplanes if we cannot do cars.  What that means is that our current economic arrangements will have to change – either because we choose to change (carbon reduction targets) or because it is forced upon us (the end of affordable fossil fuels/mineral resources).

Once again, we are confronted with the stark reality that we simply cannot operate an oil-based global economy without continuing to use oil.

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