Wired for the road

Written by on 28 January 2013 in Feature

Are electric cars finally poised to make the breakthrough on Scotland’s roads? 

The car, by-and-large, has remained relatively unchanged since the days of Karl Benz.

While our principal means of transport has seen a great swell in numbers, become safer, more fuel efficient and now even the lowliest models are more luxurious, it still relies on the basic internal combustion engine first patented in the 19th century.

The humble electric car meanwhile, though quieter and greener, has still to take off in a major way, despite investment and kind words both north and south of the border.

According to the latest Transport Scotland statistics, the total number of private motor vehicles licensed in Scotland at the end of 2011 was 2.7m, a rise of 19 per cent since 2001. The number of electric cars is still only a small fraction of this - with the total UK-wide at only 3,000.

But John Curtis, former head of Low Carbon Vehicles and Fuels at Transport Scotland, told Holyrood that great strides were being made towards increasing the number of electric cars on the road.

He said there was a hierarchy of three stages involved in making electric cars a popular choice on the road - the first is seeing widespread use among the public sector, then the private sector - with the last stage being general consumer use.

At the moment the main concentration is on the public-sector fleet, but he said the “time was now right” for businesses to be moving over to electric transport - which is why he left his role at Transport Scotland to advise companies on how to do this.

There are 210 electric vehicles in the publicsector fleet, ranging from ambulances, buses and even road-sweepers. He said the current public-sector usage, backed by an injection of about £8m over the last two years, was a “massive achievement”.

Curtis said: “Norway probably has more electric vehicles, they’ve about 2,000 vehicles, but in terms of public sector, we’ve really led the way in Scotland.

“There’s another £3.2m which is being spent on charging infrastructure for Scotland and at the moment we’ve got over 300 charging points - but up until now the cost of owning an electric vehicle has been prohibitive.

“If you wanted an internal combustion engine Ford Fiesta 1.4l that might cost you £14,000- £15,000, an electric vehicle would cost you something like £26,000. But you can now pick up a Peugeot iOn, which is similar to a Ford Fiesta size, for around £13,000 and I’ve heard quoted £10,000 and that’s made a massive difference to the total cost of ownership, and gives us a real opportunity to start saying to businesses and the public sector, you can exchange your current internal combustion engine fleet for electric vehicles and start to save money - there’s a real business case for this now.

“That’s the conversation that I have every day of every week, it is “we can save you money and you can do the right thing as well,” it’s a totally virtuous circle. Now is the time to do it.” Scotland is one of eight ‘Plugged In Places’ across the UK being supported by the UK Department for Transport, the Scottish Government and councils, and he said plans were being taken forward in all 32 council areas to provide the necessary charging infrastructure which will mean no part of Scotland is unreachable by electric car.

One of drivers’ key concerns is ‘range anxiety’, the fact that cars will not last more than about 100 miles without needing a charge - and a lack of access to rapid charging points.

One of the more accessible and cheaper electric cars is the Nissan Leaf and Curtis adds: “Nissan has a range of chargers at their dealers, so you’re able to stop off at the dealers, charge up for about half an hour and on you go again, so there’s time for a cup of coffee and a stretch. There are one or two black holes where there is no Nissan dealer and that presents a problem and you could charge for three or four hours whilst you’re waiting for your battery to at least 50 per cent fill and carry on with your journey.

“More and more, the industry is realising that rapid charging is the way to go, so 50kw rapid chargers that can charge in about 25 minutes will be on Scotland’s streets within the next four or five months and will be placed at 50-mile intervals so that there is nowhere in Scotland you can’t go in an electric car.” According to Transport Scotland, there are just over 300 EV charging posts in Scotland installed through the Plugged In Places scheme of which 80 are publicly available. By the end of the current financial year, it plans to have a network of over more than 500.

The Office for Low Emission Vehicles, the majority funder of the PIP initiative, is currently analysing data from the existing charging posts to see how often they are used.

In addition, The Scottish Government is producing a website which will show people where all the public charging points can be found and more information on electric vehicles.

Transport Minister Keith Brown said: “Scotland has long been at the forefront of world-changing innovation and I see us now embarking on a path that will lead to a revolution in motoring.

“The Scottish Government has a world-leading climate change target and we want to see the almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050, with significant progress by 2030 through wholesale adoption of electric cars and vans.

“As well as the obvious improvements to air quality, electric vehicles also help to cut noise pollution and drivers benefit from the cheaper running costs - a single £1.50 charge can get you from Edinburgh to Glasgow and right now electric vehicles are exempt from road tax.” E-cosse - a joint initiative which includes Transport Scotland and WWF Scotland - was started in March last year to help introduce more electric vehicles to Scotland.

Last year the Scottish Green Bus Fund was given £3m funding from the Scottish Government to buy 74 more eco-friendly vehicles to be used by nine private bus operators across the country, a new electric ambulance was unveiled by then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon, to be trialled by the Patient Transport Service and Dundee City Council was trebling its numbers of electric vehicles from eight to 24 with an investment of £162,000 in vehicles.

The environmental argument for electric cars and the amount of carbon emissions they produce is compelling. A Toyota Prius - the poster car for low carbon transport which is a hybrid of electric and conventional fuel, produces 89 grams of CO2 per kilometre, an electric vehicle powered by energy coming from a coal-fired power station is about 70g of CO2 per km - but if this energy comes from renewable sources it is flat zero emissions.

Curtis says: “The beauty of this is, that not only are we putting the infrastructure in to use the electricity, we are using renewables where we can.

“So if there’s an opportunity to hook up to a solar meadow or a wind turbine then that’s being explored at community level, where there is a local opportunity and maybe there’s excess generation capacity, electric vehicles are being used as a storage mechanism for what’s termed waste energy. If it’s blowing at night, let’s say, and everybody’s in bed, what you can do using smart technology is you can channel the electricity into vehicles rather than just switch off the turbine.” And he is confident about the country’s ability to deliver - saying that the Scottish Parliament’s ambitious green energy targets - wanting to produce the equivalent of 100 per cent of electricity from renewables as well as a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 – is possible.

Curtis said there was a good case for firms involved in the electric car industry - such as the manufacturers of hydrogen vehicles - to relocate to Scotland.

“Very highly commended targets have been set, commended by the whole world, they are the most stretching climate change targets in the world and I think politically, Alex Salmond is not known for taking defeat well,” he said.

“What he has privately said to us when I was a civil servant was he wants sustainable transport to be this term of office’s legacy. He wanted renewables last term and he wants low carbon transport this term. It’s almost like the perfect storm, You’ve got political support, business waking up to it and we’ve got an opportunity to ride on the back of massive government targets to achieve something quite significant for Scotland, both economically and environmentally,” he added.

At the end of last year the Scottish Conservatives criticised spending on electric cars, claiming that thousands of pounds allocated to councils were still going unspent.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that of £7.8m allocated to councils since 2010, with three months left of the financial year, more than £2m had not yet been spent - but the Scottish Government said progress was being made.

But Curtis says there are still areas where a lot more progress is needed to encourage electric car use.

He said: “There is a risk that we miss out important sectors of our markets. There’s little going on in the world of taxis, or light commercial vehicles.

“It’s all too easy to do the same things that you’ve always done, I’ve known a number of taxi companies that have wanted to try the Nissan Leaf, as a taxi, but Aberdeen, for example, won’t license the Nissan Leaf as a taxi because you can’t get disabled access into it, it has to go through a whole testing regime to be allowed.

“The reality is there are still big challenges at strategic level that have to be overcome but there are other things that we could do.

“Norway has 2,000 electric vehicles and most of them are in Oslo. They have the highest density of electric vehicles and the reason that happened was that a politician one day got up and said, ‘I’m going to open up the bus lane for electric vehicles’.

“Overnight, sales went bananas - they couldn’t keep up with demand in Norway because this one politician had the courage of his convictions.”

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