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Why electric cars won’t save our way of life

A few years ago, eye-wateringly high oil prices combined with concern about climate change gave impetus to the manufacture of electric vehicles.  Several companies were already producing hybrid cars that switch between electric and petroleum motors.  But rising oil prices paved the way for entirely electric vehicles.  These are now making their way into car fleets around the world.

Electric vehicles have a lot going for them.  They are much more efficient than petroleum vehicles that waste most of the energy they generate in the form of heat.  Even with oil prices at $50 per barrel, the per mile cost of charging an electric vehicle makes it cheaper than a petrol or diesel car.  Indeed, several manufacturers currently offer a free “fast charge” at many of Britain’s motorway service stations.

There are drawbacks, however.  The infrastructure required to switch from petroleum to electric cars is unlikely to grow fast enough.  In Britain, for example, the National Grid has been warning of capacity problems for the last couple of winters, and expects demand to outstrip supply in the winter of 2016/17.  Add in a sizeable number of new electric cars, and we can pretty much guarantee that the lights are going to go out.  Then there is the absence of adequate charging infrastructure.  Companies can offer a free fast charge because there are very few electric cars on the roads at the moment.  Although UK sales have risen steeply from 1,082 in 2011 to 9,934 in 2015; this is still less than 2 percent of the UK vehicle fleet.  And since few of these are used for long-distance driving, the fast charging points at motorway service stations are unlikely to be busy.  Once electric car sales take off, it will be essential to invest and grow this infrastructure accordingly.

This would still be worthwhile if electric cars were to wean us off our addiction to oil.  Indeed, a recent article in Bloomberg argued that an exponential growth in electric car sales would result in a dramatic fall in demand for oil:

“Even amid low gasoline prices last year, electric car sales jumped 60 percent worldwide. If that level of growth continues, the crash-triggering benchmark of 2 million barrels of reduced demand could come as early as 2023. That’s a crisis. The timing of new technologies is difficult to predict, but it may not be long before it becomes impossible to ignore.”

This may work in theory.  However, Robert Rapier in Forbes, argues that this view is fundamentally flawed:

“The biggest flaw in that article was that it ignored the historical growth rate for oil, simply subtracting 2 million bpd as if underlying demand would suddenly stop growing over the next 7 years.  But the other big flaw in this logic is that it ignores data from countries that have already rapidly increased EV penetration.”

Using data from Norway – the electric vehicle (EV) capital of the world – Rapier shows that far from weaning Norwegians off oil, the growth in EV sales has corresponded to a growth in oil consumption:

“In 2008 Norway recorded 567 new EV sales in the country. Oil demand that year was 228,000 bpd. In 2015 Norway reported 39,632 new EV sales. Oil demand last year was 234,000 bpd (and increased slightly from the previous year).”

Rapier’s explanation for this is that even the spectacular growth of EV sales in Norway is insufficient because the starting numbers were so low.  We would need vastly more EVs to be bought at a much faster rate to have any chance of permanently reducing oil consumption.  This is undoubtedly true, but it brings us back to the current lack of capacity in the electricity generation and transmission infrastructure.  Most economies around the world are currently struggling to add sufficient capacity to keep up with the demand already in the system.  Replace demand for oil with an equivalent demand for electricity, and you either crash the grid or you defeat the object by having to deploy more diesel generators and coal-fired power stations.

So does this mean that electric vehicles are a non-starter?  Probably not.  The trick is to stop pretending that we can operate an oil-based economy without oil.  If we insist on operating an economy in which all of us commute to work in offices and factories in our own privately owned vehicles, all at the same time, then our only option is to continue consuming the oil.  If, on the other hand we notice the obvious waste in private vehicle ownership – that for more than 90 percent of the time our vehicles sit in car parks and driveways imperceptibly rusting away; and when we do use them it is usually to drive less than 5 miles – then we can imagine a future in which a much smaller fleet of Uber-like private electric car services and Google driverless electric cars provide for a population that has shifted away from current employment/commuting patterns.

That future will come with problems of its own… especially if it isn’t planned for.  But with oil prices set to rise to economy-crushing levels once we’ve burned our way through the current unsustainable glut, we will be obliged to change in any case.  Our way of life will have to be different… and electric cars aren’t going to change that.

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