Coachlines - February 2024

28.02.24 Freeman Nolan Newman

The problems with current battery electric vehicles – part two

In part one of my blog, writes Freeman Nolan Newman, I went through the first two major issues I have with Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) – the real CO2 emissions, and weight. In this, part two, I follow up with the next two major issues.

My third major issue with BEVs is the real-world range

This is also a function of the poor energy density of Li-Ion batteries compared to petrol. True range is always smaller than claimed, and there is a significant reduction in range when in colder environments.

I regularly drive long distances up to Scotland to visit family and across the UK and Europe for both work and recreational reasons. The practical range limitations of almost all BEVs and the significant degradation of their range in colder weather means that, at the very least, I would have to plan these journeys much more carefully and these journeys would be longer to allow recharging time, which is never as quick as refuelling an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) car.

BEVs suit most passenger vehicle users because the vast majority of journeys are less than 10 miles, and this is one of the reasons BEVs are currently in pole position to replace ICE cars when the restrictions on selling new ones start in 2035.

Compounding the relatively limited ranges of BEVs compared to ICE cars, are the major infrastructure issues, particularly in the UK, leading to significant and realistic ‘range anxiety’ among BEV drivers.

Firstly, we have nowhere near enough charging points – there are currently more than 53,000 public charging points in the UK, up 46% from November 2022 [5]. However, this lags significantly behind the actual requirement. It is estimated that we will need more than 300,000 by 2030. We need to be building around 60,000 a year and we are currently building less than 20,000 a year.

Combined with frequently broken charging points, where they are out of action, it means that at popular recharging points and the busiest travel times, there are frequently delays in starting to charge your BEV. Given the difference between what we are building and what we need, these issues are only going to get worse unless we see major investment in sufficient numbers of public charging points.

Of course, some people have space at either home or work (or both) to have charging points installed, but most people living in cities park on the street and don’t have the required space or facilities to install a charger.

One of the major reasons for Tesla’s success to date is that, in addition to the cars being very good, it invested significantly in its proprietary charging network in the markets it entered, ensuring sufficient charging capacity for the cars they sold in each market.

Part of the issue in the UK is the energy mix in electricity production. In 2022, the overall mix was [6]:

• Gas – 38.5%
• Wind – 26.8%
• Nuclear – 15.5%
• Biomass – 5.2%
• Coal – 1.5%
• Solar – 4.4%
• Imports (mixed) – 5.5%
• Hydro – 1.8%
• Energy storage – 0.9%

The good news is the increase in renewable energy, that, if including nuclear, provides 48.5% of total electricity generation.

The bad news is the lack of investment in nuclear during the past 50 years. Historically nuclear provided 20% of UK requirements and basically covered ‘base load’. The last nuclear power station opened was Sizewell B in 1996 and whilst there are some in progress, they are still not near completion. A number of the older nuclear power stations have already closed (for example Sizewell A) and all the other existing nuclear power stations, apart from Sizewell B, are due to close in the next decade as they are well over their original planned lifespan. This means we are losing the majority of the 15.5% left of our nuclear capability.

During the past 30 years, partly due to privatisation of energy utilities (and therefore cost is a bigger priority than strategic energy mix) and due to prolonged planning application processes for nuclear power stations (allowing nimbyism) has meant that combined cycle gas power stations were the preferred solution in the 1990s until the move to renewables. These were approximately one-tenth of the price of a nuclear power station and took three years rather than 30 to build and switch on. Of course, these are fossil fuel solutions that we want to phase out.

Renewables outwith nuclear (wind, solar etc.) are a major focus now, but can never produce ‘base load’ as they are variable – requiring the wind, sun etc. and if there are days of insufficient of each, they won’t produce enough electricity. The best use of these is for ‘top-up’ of electricity needs. Hydropower can potentially be base load, but this is a small proportion of our energy mix.

Finally, the National Grid is currently at 98% capacity at present and, given that we are losing most of our nuclear electricity generation, without replacing it with like-for-like base load supply, but instead less reliable renewables (wind & solar). With the wholescale adoption of BEVs, the electricity demand is going to surge, and the grid simply will not be able to cope.

There is anecdotal evidence that, if one company, Royal Mail (admittedly with one of the largest UK fleets of vehicles), decided to fully switch to BEVs, the National Grid would not cope and would simply fall over.

Also, I’ve known of quotes from the National Grid for new connections to supply expected electricity requirements of not weeks or months, but many years if not decades.

In summary, BEVs don’t have comparable range to ICE cars and these reduce when it is cold. The Recharging network isn’t sufficient and will continue to lag further behind the requirements and finally, the National Grid capacity is insufficient for the increase in demand as BEV numbers increase.

My final major issue with BEVs is the cost

A new Nissan Leaf is more than £31,000 and the Mini Electric is £34,000.

A BMW i5 starts at just under £75,000.

There are a few BEVs that are coming to the market at lower costs, mainly from China such as BYD, but in general, these are expensive vehicles, particularly for smaller models from traditional car manufacturers when compared to their ICE counterparts.

Part of the reason is the significant cost of the batteries, estimated at 40% of the initial cost of a vehicle.

Combine this with the longevity issue, where a battery is going to show clear degradation in performance after eight to 10 years or 200,000km (as explained in part 1) and would need to be replaced (at huge expense).

In addition, the insurance costs of BEVs are rocketing – apparently by over 70% this year due to the cost of repairing or replacing the batteries in a BEV that has been in an accident [7].

Not to mention the increasing costs of recharging, either at home or at public charging facilities.

All of this combines to mean that a BEV, run by someone who doesn’t have a fully subsidised company car, has the potential to cost significantly more to run than an equivalent ICE car, particularly as it gets older, and the battery degrades, and will be worth less at trade-in due to the longevity and battery degradation worries.

We’ve yet to see BEVs in the market long enough to see whether they can be run feasibly on ‘bangernomics’ as basically, cheap ‘throw-away’ vehicles at the end of their useful life. But given the vehicle complexity and (again) the cost of the batteries combined with the precious metals they contain (that potentially can be recycled), maybe these vehicles will never get to this stage and be a ‘cheap’ run-around.

This can be seen to be regressive to those on a tight budget, but who rely on their cars as they live and/ or work in areas without sufficient public transport links to be a reasonable alternative. These people will also feel the increasing taxation on ICE cars, for example ULEZ being extended throughout London, bite significantly harder for them too. This is a subject for a future blog.

In summary, not only is the initial cost of a BEV comparatively high, but also worries about the longevity and cost of the batteries mean that BEVs that are not run as company cars are potentially expensive to run, especially as they get older.

Please note that the issues I am raising in this blog are about today’s predominantly li-Ion battery powered cars. There is plenty of development and new research achievements that mean that the future is bright for new types of batteries (eg. solid state) that will be significantly less energy intensive (and CO2 emitting) to manufacture, significantly lighter and therefore have a higher energy density. Also, the hope is that they will have increased longevity and be cheaper to produce.

There are also other technologies, such as battery swap technology, that will assist in mitigating the biggest flaws. This, however, requires all manufacturers to standardise their battery connections and sizes to truly work as a solution (along with other requirements with regards to infrastructure). I will return to this as part of a future blog.

Hence, over the medium to long term, this would allow BEVs to close the gap, or maybe surpass ICE cars as genuinely superior solutions soon.

We must also be wary of committing to one potential solution above all others and going down a cul-de-sac legislation-wise that means that better solutions are ignored or we realise that, for all our best intentions, we have a solution that actually makes things worse overall.

Thanks for reading.