Opinion: the Government's Climate Action Plan envisages a large future role for electric transport, so can the technology replace petrol engines?

Electric cars once played a substantial role in transporting the public, with about as many electric cars as petrol cars being sold in the United States in 1900. The petrol car of the time was seen as dirty, dangerous and unreliable, while the electric car was perceived as quiet and safe, albeit with limited range. This was all to change with the low-cost production of the petrol Model T by Henry Ford in 1907, and later with the replacement of the manual engine crank by the electric starter in 1912. Diesel engines featured in the 1920s and grew in popularity for heavy vehicles and, much later, for cars in Europe.

Over a number of decades, the world of transportation changed completely and long distance, reliable, low-cost driving was available to the masses. At the same time, the world was electrifying, with the AC grids, created by Nikola Tesla, rapidly expanding around the world. Access to incredible amounts of energy and the energy-consuming technologies to propel, warm, cook, clean, communicate and entertain fundamentally changed the way that many humans lived around the planet. Economies could grow and humanity could propagate like never before.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, RTÉ Environment Correspondent George Lee and John Hayes from UCC on the Government's Climate Action Plan, which envisages a large role for electric transport

All this access to energy also came with a dark side in the forms of energy addiction, wars, pollution and environmental damage. Pollution bedevilled our cities. Carbon emissions and, even worse, methane emissions expanded globally and contributed to global warming.

The electric car renaissance

A lot has changed in the last 40 years and will continue to change. I was part of the engineering team in Los Angeles which brought the General Motors EV1 to market in 1996. This was to be the first production electric car of the modern era, and it pioneered a path for others to follow. Prior to this, Professor John Goodenough invented the lithium-ion battery in 1979. These batteries initially powered laptop computers, but with time have powered the massive global expansion of mobile phones and smart devices, fundamentally changing how we communicate, learn and entertain. The lithium-ion battery was very successfully adopted for cars in the 2000s in an effort led by the transformative and extraordinary Elon Musk of Tesla Motors.  

The ongoing electrification of the vehicle is inevitable due to the high efficiency, the reduced emissions, and the use of clean energy. The electric car can take several forms so that we are not overly dependent on any one technology. There are four different types of electric vehicles: battery, such as the Nissan Leaf; hybrid, such as the Toyota Prius; plug-in hybrid, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander; and fuel cell, such as the Toyota Mirai.

From RTÉ One's Prime Time, presenters Miriam O'Callaghan and David McCullagh pit an electric car against a petrol car on a trip to Valentia Island

All of these vehicle types feature batteries and electric motors, which can independently propel the vehicle using electricity. A fifth type of vehicle is the mild hybrid, which uses conventional petrol or diesel engines for propulsion, but increases the use of electrics to decrease fuel consumption and emissions. All of these technologies, except for the fuel cell vehicle, are available today in Ireland.

Hybrid and hydrogen vehicles 

Petrol and diesel hybrid vehicles consume fossil fuels, but use electric technology to require less fuel to propel the vehicle compared to a conventional petrol or diesel vehicle. While hybrid vehicles emit more carbon dioxide when driving than the equivalent battery vehicle emits due to the generation of electricity, battery vehicles result in greater emissions during manufacturing. Given the Irish grid today and international vehicle manufacturing, hybrid and battery vehicles have similar carbon footprints, and both are lower than the equivalent diesel or petrol vehicle.

This situation will change with time. Wind energy has been the success story in Ireland over the past two decades, with renewables now providing 30% of our electricity. The future of energy generation in Ireland will be even greener. Electrical connections to the UK and France will provide access to the excess renewable and nuclear energies elsewhere. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland and Cian McCormack's Ireland By Electric Car series, a visit to Ardnacrusha to find out how much CO2 goes into making an electric car compared to a fossil fuel vehicle

The fuel cell vehicle is powered by hydrogen, a fuel which can store great amounts of energy on board and allow for rapid refuelling. The hydrogen can be produced using fossil fuels but, more importantly, it can also be produced by renewable electrical power. Fuel cell vehicles have the lightweight energy storage required for heavy vehicles. Unlike the battery vehicles, which can be fuelled with a home charger, fuel cell vehicles require an infrastructure similar to the petrol station of today. China, a heavyweight today in battery electric vehicles, is now also heavily investing in fuel cell vehicles in order to have clean long-distance transport.

An evolution rather than a revolution

It’s also important to ask what can go wrong with this vision. The diesel emissions scandal has been a hard lesson in shaping the public’s purchases. From 2008, diesel engines were incentivised in order to reduce carbon emissions. The harmful toxic emissions of these engines in urban environments were obviously not a major consideration until the exposure in 2015 of the wide-spread cheating by Volkswagen.

This second coming of the electric car will be evolutionary and not revolutionary. The capital costs will be enormous as the electric grid is transformed and the fleet of vehicles is turned over.

RTÉ's Donal Byrne reports on the changing motor industry and the engines of the future

Norway is often discussed as a model country for electric vehicle sales, largely due to its subsidies and incentives. Norway sits on significant fossil fuel reserves and a sovereign wealth fund of over one trillion dollars. 98% of Norway’s electricity is already green and bountiful, based on a massive dam network, with Norwegians consuming several times the electricity of the Irish. On the other hand, Ireland gets just 30% of its electricity from renewables at present, the Corrib gas field go dry in several years and we have a government debt of €200 billion euros. It would be great to have Norway’s resources!

The battery is the strength of electric vehicles, but also the weakness. The technology has developed amazingly, with 60 kWh of battery storage available on the latest models with over 400km of range. However, sourcing of critical materials, such as lithium and cobalt, together with the energy and carbon intensities of production, raise questions as to the sustainability of the batteries themselves. While advances in the technology are likely to be marginal in improving size, cost will be reduced and significant gains can be made in terms of reducing the carbon footprint and improving battery recyclability and reuse.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, John Hayes discusses report from Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that electric vehicles could drain Exchequer of motor tax and fuel excise

READ: The ups and downs of operating an electric car

We will learn over the next decade which of the solutions are viable and sustainable as economies of scale and supply chains develop. Car sharing and autonomous vehicles will also feature. All going well, as the current young generation of teenagers enter the 2030s, they will have environmentally-friendly, sustainable transportation options which their parents never dreamed of.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ