Zeroemission cars get the green light Electric vision theguardian com

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Zero-emission cars get the green light

As electric vehicles are powered by electricity, supporters of the cars believe they could play a major role in cutting emissions by reducing our reliance on petrol

Anyone living or working in a city will soon start to notice a transformation to the humble car-parking space. Gone are the days when drivers merely required a bare slab of tarmac to park up. Increasing numbers of motorists will be demanding kerbsides equipped with glowing posts capable of recharging their shiny new plug-in electric vehicles (EV), which require electricity, rather than petrol, to power their motors.

Although EVs currently account for just a few thousand of the 28.5m cars on our roads, both industry and the government are taking major steps to ramp up the nascent sector in a bid to clean up the environment and boost the economy. Some estimates predict we could see tens of thousands of zero-emission cars on the roads within the next few years. 2011 is set to be a breakthrough year for the industry, with six new EVs launched in the UK and a further three entering showrooms in 2012.

It’s going to be an important year for electric cars, with the first EVs available on the market, predicts Steve Fowler, editor-in-chief of What Car? The big news is the Nissan Leaf, the first pure EV you can buy, which has gone on sale this year with deliveries starting very soon.

An acronym for leading environmentally friendly, affordable family car, the Leaf is the poster-child of EVs and is widely tipped to expand the market, due to its relatively low price and suitability to be used as a family car, in much the same way as the Toyota Prius heralded the advent of hybrid driving. Inevitably, barriers remain to the adoption of EVs, not least the fact that expensive battery technology means the Leaf and its rivals, such as Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, Peugeot’s iOn and Tata Vista, will set you back between £28,000 and £35,000 – at least a third more than similar conventional combustion engine cars.

However, in an attempt to boost uptake, the Department for Transport is seeking to cut the initial cost to EV customers by offering a plugged-in car grant worth up to £5,000 off the purchase price of nine pure EVs and plug-in hybrids, available since 1 January. The discount will be applied when the car is purchased, so buyers won’t need to claim the discount back. However, the amount of money available through the grant is limited so as soon as the funds run out after about 10,000 cars have been purchased, consumers will have to pay full price.

Jumpstart growth

But despite this caveat, the industry remains bullish that the new vehicles, coupled with incentives, will provide the spark required to jumpstart growth across the market.

This is the first year we’ve seen a significant increase in the volume of EVs, and we’re expecting to see a rise in the numbers being registered by a significant percentage, says Nikki Rooke, head of communications at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

However, she cautioned that it will be some years before EVs become a common sight and start to take over the market. For the next few years EV owners are likely to be businesses or trendsetters prepared to pay the high prices usually associated with new technologies in order to be seen with the latest technology.

Andy Heiron, head of the electric vehicle programme at Renault UK, says appealing to people’s pockets will be key. There are some people who will buy and run electric vehicles to make a statement, but for the mass market, they have to make financial sense. That’s why we’ve stuck our neck on the block by going for battery lease [buyers of Renault’s electric cars will pay a monthly rental fee for the battery], which will mean we are on a level with equivalent diesel cars on upfront cost.

The move from niche electric car makers to major car firms would also attract consumers, he says. We’ve got more than 150 Renault dealers in the UK, rather than the small number of providers you’ve had before and we are starting with 30 specialist EV dealers. Some people will travel a long way to buy a new car, but most like to travel no more than an hour from where they live.

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In the long-term, advocates of EVs believe they could play a major role in cutting emissions by reducing our reliance on cars powered by petrol and offering a way of storing renewable energy supplied by wind turbines and solar panels.

After energy supply, road transport in its traditional petrol-based form has been the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UK. It is also the only sector that has managed to increase its carbon dioxide emissions over the past 20 years due to the rise in the volume of traffic. According to the latest government figures, since 1990, emissions from road transport have risen by 3%, while emissions from the energy supply sector have dropped by 23%, business emissions have fallen by 31% and residential emissions decreased by about 5%.

EV supporters are also keen to point out that battery-powered cars are ultimately cheaper to run than conventional petrol cars, given their greater efficiency in a future peak-oil economy battling against rising carbon prices. EVs have also been touted as a way of improving London’s dismal air quality, which breaches EU safety levels. As they emit no particulates or nitrous oxides at the tailpipe, the mayor of London’s office says EVs are particularly suited to busy city traffic where engines spend a lot of time idling in congestion with emissions pumping out.

EVs have zero emissions so they’re fantastic for air quality, says Isabel Dedring, environment adviser for London mayor, Boris Johnson. London is aiming to deploy 100,000 EVs by 2020 through a combination of tightening up the congestion charge, introducing planning legislation favouring charge points, and buying 1,000 cars in its own fleet.

But while London might be set to become the epicentre of EV drivers, the north-east of England is gunning to become its manufacturing hub.

Nissan is set to start manufacturing the Leaf and its battery in Sunderland from 2013, safeguarding and creating hundreds of jobs along the way. Meanwhile, Liberty Electric Cars expects to ramp up production of its all-electric 4x4s to 3,000 next year, employing nearly 300 people. The opportunity for the north-east is in the billions, says Barry Shrier, chief executive and founder of Liberty.

We’re at the dawn of the second era of the car industry and it’s an exciting opportunity for the future of the UK.

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