Fuel for thought: an electricity investigation in the Renault Megane E-Tech
Where does the electricity that powers our EVs really come from? Paul Horrell and his trusty Megane Electric sidekick investigate
Electric cars run on power that’s produced in fossil fuel plants, so their overall CO2 per mile is hardly lower than petrol cars. If we did have a widespread conversion to EVs, the grid wouldn’t cope anyway. Besides, the batteries won’t last, so a car will need two or three in its lifetime and that in itself means huge manufacturing CO2 and waste disposal headaches. Who’d have one anyway, given their range is inconvenient and charging spotty?
All perfectly legitimate concerns... in 2013.
Photography: Jonny Fleetwood
A decade on, those objections have all pretty much gone away. What makes electric cars so fascinating is the speed of change. Whatever you knew about them is wrong. Whatever you know now will soon be wrong too.
Let’s go for a drive to look at some of the reasons. It’s a route of 750 miles in two days, going to some remote places, and in sketching it out beforehand my attitude to charging the car is basically, “What could possibly go wrong?” This, I tell myself, isn’t foolhardiness. It’s experience. I’ve done several similar trips in this same Renault Megane lately and had no trouble.
So, from London up the A1 to Gridserve’s solar installation near Easingwold in Yorkshire. I’m a farm boy and think in acres, but you probably think in football pitches and a pitch (two acres) of solar farm can power about two million EV miles a year. There are 70 pitches’ worth in this giant reflective shimmering blue plot, the panels automatically pivoting to best catch the sun arcing across the sky. They do nothing at night, of course, so alongside is a row of shipping containers full of batteries. But they don’t need as much battery capacity as you might think, because Gridserve’s business is on the go rapid charging, and most of that happens by day because most long journeys are by day. By contrast, the overall majority of electric vehicle charging is the slow sort, which happens at night when the grid is less stressed and relies more on wind. That’s why night electricity is lower priced as well as greener.
But by day, solar is now very cheap electricity. Panel prices have dropped to about a hundredth of their level two decades back. This solar farm was built in a matter of five months – a blink of an eye compared with the public enquiries and build time of a fossil or nuclear power station.
Most solar farms are on fairly low-grade farmland, and Gridserve sows meadow plants beneath the panels, boosting biodiversity and sequestering carbon. But if you’ve been worried about solar panels carpeting the country and stealing food production, you needn’t. Expected growth of solar equals about 0.5 per cent of Britain’s farmland, or half the area of its golf courses. I think we can live with that, eh? Then there are roofs. To put it on a more personal scale, panels that fit on a small terraced house (mine) produce enough to drive 5,000 miles a year.
After Easingwold’s glistening lake of solar panels, Ferrybridge, half an hour south along the A1, looks distinctly industrial and carries the universal aroma of bin lorry. Instead of harvesting energy from the sun, its input is rubbish. Literally. Little more than half of the contents of the country’s bins are recycled. The rest usually goes to landfill. They’re just burying the problem, and besides they produce methane which is an extremely aggressive greenhouse gas. Enfinium’s twin power stations at Ferrybridge take the post-recycling waste, nearly 1.5 million tonnes a year, and turn it to energy. A steady convoy of artics decant the garbage into a vast hopper whence it’s conveyed into the furnace to produce hot gas. This boils steam to drive turbine generators, kicking out between them 170MW, five times the noonday peak of the Easingwold solar farm. That’s enough for 370,000 homes and businesses, it claims. Or in our language, to power 1,100 ultra rapid car chargers at 150kW all at once around the clock.
Now this isn’t exactly renewable energy, because it comes from stuff humans have made at energy cost. But we’re throwing it away, so until we stop the waste, we really should recover the energy in it. Apart from the electricity, ash comes out of the bottom of the furnace. Among it is metals that are captured and recycled, then the remaining ash goes to make aggregate for concrete. The smokestack is cleansed of NOx with urea, like AdBlue for diesels. Waste to power might once have been a subsidised utopian project, but the number of these plants has doubled in a decade because they run at a profit. The price of landfill is rising, no surprise, so power plants can charge councils for taking the rubbish, while getting paid for the electricity too.
Then we’re back in the Megane, now 300 mostly motorway miles into the trip and having had one 80 per cent battery charge and one shorter one. In both cases they happened when we needed sandwiches and coffee and were over by the time we were ready to go on. In a petrol or diesel car on the motorway, the engine isn’t the loudest noise, so you might assume that an electric vehicle won’t be much more peaceful. But it is, because the low resistance tyres and low drag body and thick floor all mean less other racket gets through. The Megane adds seats that suit me and an excellent control layout with hard buttons for the climate control and driver assist, plus good maps integration – either its own or your phone’s. But across the wonderful high Pennines section of the M62 motorway I’m thinking about the scenery not the road testing. All the more so as we turn up onto a moorland track north of Bolton.
Many people don’t like wind turbines on their horizon. I find them an uplifting sight, and not just because of what I know they’re doing to drive my car and power my life. Their hypnotic rhythms evoke yachts or flying swans. Up close they’re even more captivating, not least because of their sheer immense scale and elegance. The ones at Crook Hill are 125m to the tips. If you’ve ever been in the London Eye, you’ll know that’s a seriously long way up. There are 11 turbines at Crook Hill with a full strength capacity of 37MW between them.
They produce about the cheapest electricity. Far cheaper than gas at the moment, but of course gas is high because there’s a war on. That’s the thing. Build your wind turbines or your solar farms and the price of wind and sun stays the same – zero. Build a gas station and you have to keep buying gas, at the prevailing and wildly fluctuating international price. And gas stations haven’t got any cheaper to build, while solar panels have plummeted in price and wind turbines are falling too.
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As I say, I’m in the minority and land-based windfarms aren’t popular with the neighbours – although opinion polls suggest if local people were given discounted electricity they’d relent. Instead, giant forests of offshore turbines are where it’s at, and being surrounded by continental shelf helps Britain a lot. Around the time the first Renault Zoes were coming onto the road, renewables accounted for just a tenth of Britain’s electricity, so saying “electric cars are driven by coal and gas” was a fair point. At that time nearly half the electricity came from dirty old coal, the remainder gas, nuclear and cross-Channel imports. Nowadays coal has essentially disappeared from the grid. So far this year we’ve got 42 per cent of our electricity from renewables and 33 per cent from gas. By 2030 the National Grid is planning on finding between 75 and 88 per cent of our electricity supply from renewables.
Magically, as your EV gets older its CO2 per mile is falling, as the grid gets less carbon intensive. Which is why the lifetime CO2 impact assessments are too high: they calculate the driving phase emissions on the basis of the electricity mix in the year of the car’s launch. (Even on those pessimistic calculations, an EV has about half the lifetime CO2 of a petrol. Yes, the ones whose batteries are made in China.)
Ah but will the grid itself, the wires and transformers, melt down? Well, if we had 10 million EVs in Britain, a good estimate for 2030, they’d only use about six per cent of the grid’s capacity. And most EV charging happens during overnight slack. So National Grid is planning on using two-way EVs to balance demand when there’s no wind. They’d form a giant distributed smoothing battery. There would be handsome incentives – charge at cheap times, sell back at peak rates. We’re beginning to see other sorts of demand management in a connected world, with variable prices encouraging people to set washing machine timers for when electricity is in surplus. People are taking to it.
Perhaps nothing’s really new. I’m off to Wales next to see a grid storage system that’s been running for 60 years. Ffestiniog power station is a reversible hydro plant. In times of grid surplus, water is pumped up above the Stwlan dam. When they need power, they open the sluices and up to 27 tonnes a second deluges back down to turbines at the lower station. That gives them 360MW within a minute, and if it starts full, it’ll power the whole of North Wales for several hours.
There are a couple more of these in Britain, but it’s likely they’ll be the last, despite the need to smooth a fluctuating renewables heavy grid and the simple elegance of the idea. Thing is, batteries are cheaper now. Also, tests are under way to fill underground reservoirs with hydrogen. Electrolyse it when there’s surplus electricity; reverse the process in fuel cells when it’s needed.
A little coda. Standing on the Stwlan dam I can see about five miles down the valley the twin hulks of the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station’s reactor buildings. I went there on a school trip. It’s stopped generating since – too old – but it’ll take to the end of the century before the radioactivity has decayed enough for them to flatten the buildings, and literally hundreds more years of careful storage of the waste. These are the costs of nuclear that taxpayers, not commercial generators, always pay. Yet here we are building a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The government agreed in 2013 to underwrite a price for that electricity that was slightly less than what wind cost then, but several times wind now. The Hinkley plant will be largely owned and run by the Chinese state, which in hindsight hardly looks like national security genius on Britain’s part. The building cost has ballooned to two and a half times the 2013 estimate, delays are lengthening, and everyone’s throwing good money after bad.
Still, now’s not the time to get angry. Wales is looking lovely and its gorgeous roads are empty. The Megane is genuinely fun. Sure there are no gears to shift but petrol cars have largely ditched manuals. Instead I’ll take the ever ready instant hit of an e-motor, and use it to nip and tuck the Megane through these captivating corners. It’s agile and keen and not so grippy that it isn’t cheeky – not quite a great GTI, but it is a very good hatch. Its handling reminds me of a Mazda 3 (roughly the same price with slightly less power and an auto) partly because the Megane is relatively light, and it wouldn’t be if it had a humongous and materially profligate battery. Another interesting EV-specific challenge comes in modulating the brakes, pressing just hard enough for max regen without bringing the discs into play. So consumption in this slap and tickle driving is no worse than on the motorway.
Because charging has been quick, we’ve been grabbing stand-up food during most charges. All visits concluded, it’s time for a treat. A row of rapid Instavolts stands in the car park of the Rhug Estate farm shop and cafe. We sit for an agreeable lunch and do a couple of emails. By which time, 55 minutes, the Megane has enough in it for a 205-mile, four and a half hour straight shot back to London.
During those motorway hours it occurs to me that relief from the climate crisis won’t solely lie in some massive coordinated effort of global governments and corporations. Because, when did that ever happen? But it might just come when everyone realises what’s been happening the past 10 years with renewable energy, both its price and rollout speed. Soon surely, pumping hydrocarbon out of the ground and burning it will be just too quaint and expensive to bother with.