Buying an electric car

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Electric cars save cash for city drivers

They may miss out on revving their engines at the lights, but urban drivers of electric cars can cut their emissions by two thirds and save up to 3,000 a year. Sound like a fair compromise?

Electric cars produce no exhaust fumes, minimal pollution and a third of the CO2 emissions of petrol engines. On top of that they're tax free, immune to congestion charges, and a full 'tank' of fuel costs no more than a pint of milk.

So what's the snag? Currently, limited range and recharging opportunities, and a lack of driving pizzazz. But could the next generation of electric vehicles change all that?

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Photo: Buying an electric car

Saves 950kg of CO2 a year

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CO2 reduction 3 out of 5

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How does it work?

Pub Fact

  • 25% of all journeys made in the UK are less than two miles
  • There are over 33 million cars in Britain
  • There are at least 1,500 electric cars in the UK already
  • Transport accounts for 22% of emissions in the UK
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from private and commercial transport in Ireland have risen 140% since 1990, the largest increase in Europe

Electric cars use a battery and electric motor to power the vehicle and are charged via a standard mains socket in your home, or at an increasing number of free outdoor charging bays. The average electric car does 60 miles on a single charge with a top speed of 40mph - while higher performance sports cars can do 150 miles and 130mph. There are currently over 100 electricity pumps in the UK - the majority of which are in London. But 250 new points are expected to be added this year across Britain. Read the Treehugger article.

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How will it make a difference?

  • An electric car run on conventional electricity from a coal-fired generator produces a third of the emissions of a conventional petrol car (64g of CO2 per km compared to 176g CO2 per km) and just over half the emissions of a diesel or hybrid car (104g CO2/km)
  • You can save thousands of pounds a year in running costs
  • If you're thinking electric car plus green electricity tariff equals carbon neutral transport, you might need to recalculate. green energy

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What's stopping me?

"Max speed, 40mph?"

Electric cars are currently best suited to city driving because the average speed of traffic in London, for example, is notoriously just 10mph: 2mph slower than an Edwardian horse-drawn carriage.

"I've heard they aren't safe"

Electric cars are classified as 'quadricycles' by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, so are subject to less stringent safety tests than cars. But one report estimates they are three times less likely than petrol cars to be involved in accidents. Insurers certainly think so - electric cars qualify for the lowest insurance category, group one, because (reckons the AA) their likelihood of getting into dangerous situations is much lower than that of conventional, high-speed cars.

"Won't the battery go flat as soon as I get out of my road?"

Current models manage an average of about 60 miles on a single charge so we can make our average daily commute of 17 miles more than three times between recharges, but out-of-town journeys are of course trickier. Upgrading to more expensive lithium-ion batteries can increase range significantly.

"I'd love to help the planet, but I can't afford such fancy new technology"

Actually, electric cars range in price between 8,900 and 17,000 and, based on the UK average of 10,000 miles a year, you could save 800 a year on fuel, 300 in car tax, up to 2,000 from congestion charges and free parking in London, and get cheap insurance too. On the other hand, the current generation of electric vehicles are unlikely to rack up that sort of mileage due to their limited range.

Fuel and maintenance costs are also about a third of the typical petrol car: about 6.5p per mile as opposed to 20p. Even with the cost of replacement batteries - about 1,500 every three to four years - electric motoring still costs only about 11p per mile.

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What's the debate?

Electric vehicles are exhaust free but critics say that they simply shift the point at which the emissions and pollution is generated to the power station. This is true (in fact, electricity generation accounts for a third of the UK's climate impact) but power stations are more efficient at generating energy than cars, so emission reductions still hold. You may be tempted to switch your electricity tariff to green energy to reduce your driving emissions to near zero - but think twice before making the jump.

New research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in 2008 levels another, less serious, accusation at electric cars: they use more water than fossil fuelled cars. Vehicles running off electricity use about 17 times more water per mile than petrol vehicles because electricity production in power plants requires the withdrawal (and return) of surface water from nearby lakes and rivers. It's worth bearing in mind, however, that one million electric cars account for just 0.3% of the miles driven by light duty vehicles in the US. Read the article.

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How do I do it?

  • Choose the best electric vehicle for you - car, scooter or motorcycle
  • Fit an electricity socket in your garage or driveway. All sockets must have an on/off switch and be fitted with surge protection - and the local distribution board must be fitted with a circuit breaker
  • Find your nearest public electricity pump: for London see Newride and for the rest of the UK see EST or EV Network
  • Switch to a green energy supplier
  • Plug in to recharge over night, when electricity is supplied mainly by low-carbon nuclear power
  • If in London, apply for immunity to the Congestion Charge

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spangles 2009-04-19

I think the emissions figures published for an electric vehicle with only coal supplying the electricity is incorrect.

In the UK the current grid mix results in emissions of between 550 and 600 gCO2/kWh.

This is lower than a purely coal based electricity supply system.

A typical car energy consumption would be about:


This would give a electric vehicle emissions figure of around

120 gCO2e/km.

Which is comparable with a small UK car. If you increased the amount of coal used, the figures would get worse (above 120 gCO2/km).

The only way of making electric cars worthwhile is by making the electricity supply green and cleaner. This is exactly what the renewables industry are saying we need to do. Electric cars are great, but we need to sort out the energy supply as well.

Baz, Shropshire 2009-01-25

The item above suggests that electric power stations are more efficient than some cars, if only this were true. A typical coal fired station is about 30% efficient at source, by the time we recive the electricity, we must also add on the losses in the transmission system such as heating loss in the cables due to current flow and Ohms law, losses in the transformers due magnetisation losses and heating in the copper wire of the coils of the transformers. This must take the efficiency of the whole system down below 30%.
Conversely, a diesel car, especially in the small engine class, is considered to be low carbon. Most diesel engines have efficiencies above 30%, including the big ones, so I would suggest that a switch to an electric car would not be a good use of your green investment.

Benswing, Maryland, USA 2008-08-29

Bought a Vectrix electric motorcycle in July 08 and love it! I use it to commute each day and ride as much as possible when doing errands. My students love to see it plugged in.

Waiting for a real EV 2008-05-18

A great idea in theory - one which I would openly embrace but for the fact that no major car company (save for GM/Honda/Toyota ever so briefly in the 90's) have committed to producing a true full electric car that would be considered worth driving.
The G-Wiz, and others like it are a joke - the prospect of Hydrogen being viable is fantasy propaganda - check out 'Who killed the electric car?' for an (admittedly biased but factual) insight into how car companies operate.

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Glossary terms used on this page
Air pollution
Air pollution usually refers to the presence of any chemical or particulate that alters the normal make-up of our atmosphere, causing direct threats to human health (such as breathing difficulties) or longer-term damage through its effects on our planet's ecosystem. Pollutants include smoke and dust, nitrogen oxides, methane, and the fumes from aerosol sprays and other solvents. Industrial processes and transport are major contributors to air pollution, but it can also be caused by natural processes such as forest fires and volcanoes. See also acid rain.
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon neutral
A business or a process is described as carbon neutral if it doesn't add to the net amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This can be achieved either by emitting no CO2 to begin with - by using only renewable energy, say - or by 'offsetting' emissions (a controversial issue) which means compensating for emissions by another action which might reduce atmospheric CO2, such as planting trees. In practice, it is impossible for a person to live in an entirely carbon neutral way because even if you cut out energy consumption derived from fossil fuels, most products and services people rely on will have embodied emissions.
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are the deposits of crude oil, natural gas and coal formed by the decay, over millions of years, of organic material (plants, trees animals and bacteria). Because the combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon that has been out of the natural carbon cycle for so long (unlike with living or more recently dead organic matter, known as biomass) it affects the balance between stored carbon and carbon present in the atmosphere as CO2, a greenhouse gas.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere. navigation


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