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Electric cars - the ultimate subsidy for the rich

The winning essay in our contest for exposing environmental pseudoscience takes on the expensive and damaging myth of the electric car

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

This morning, Nick Clegg promised to take £500 million from taxpayers, and use it to subsidise electric cars. Last year, the Spectator’s annual Matt Ridley Prize was won by an essay exposing the idiocy of the scheme – and the menacing social implications of subsidingof the rich. 

My wife’s friend Charlotte earns £17,000 a year working as a teaching assistant, lives in a housing association flat and is having sleepless nights about paying her recent £124.78 electricity bill. My friend Toby earns £425,000 a year as a media lawyer, lives in a big house in Putney and every day the no doubt well-meaning but somewhat misguided people of Westminster City Council give him hours and hours of free electricity. This is paid for in part by Charlotte’s council tax.

This absurd situation exists because Toby commutes in to Westminster every day in his government-subsidised electric car, which he parks in his free council-provided parking space and plugs it into his free council-provided charging point.

There are now 83 free charging points in Westminster and the government is planning to spend £400 million building thousands more everywhere else. There is also a handy £5,000 government grant to put towards buying your first electric vehicle irrespective of how much you earn. Again paid for from taxation.

None of this is means-tested because Westminster City Council and the Department of Energy and Climate Change think electric vehicles are such a good thing that the normal principles of progressive state spending, austerity and all of that dreary stuff don’t need to apply. Toby drives an electric car so must be a good chap and his electricity should be paid for by the state. Charlotte travels by bus, so she isn’t and it won’t be.

As well as the economic illiteracy of subsidising rich people’s cars while trying to cut government spending, there are so many environmental objections to electric vehicles that it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s kick off from the unlikely place of Newton’s second law of motion. As you will vaguely recall from your O-level physics, ‘the acceleration of a body is directly proportional to the net force acting on the body, and inversely proportional to its mass’. Or to put it simply, to move something you need to apply energy and the amount of energy you need to apply is proportional to the mass of the something.

Mr Newton’s inexorable law doesn’t stay the same when you shift from fossil fuel cars to electric ones; it actually gets worse. The total amount of energy required to transport people like you or Toby to work doesn’t go down just because you are smugly sitting in an electric car. In fact it actually goes up because you are now lugging along a big 1,000lb lithium battery as well. Everywhere you go. Because of this, the average electric vehicle weighs about 30 per cent more than the petrol equivalent, so every time you turn the key you will use a lot more energy to get to the same place than you would have done had you carried on driving a nasty fossil-fuel-burning Mini. To state the blindingly obvious, just because you cannot see or hear the energy being created any more doesn’t means it is not being used.

What’s more, the lithium that powers the battery is unlikely to have been mined by a fair-trade, minimum-waged, fully unionised worker sitting in an air-conditioned office and working a 35-hour week. It’s possible, of course, but let’s be grown-up about this — it’s pretty unlikely. Most of the world’s limited supply of lithium is in Bolivia and China, where they are perhaps a tad more relaxed than they should be about workers’ rights and the impact on the environment of the huge open-cast lithium mines.

And the energy that you put into your big heavy battery has of course come from a mainly fossil-fuelled grid. This is the absolute showstopper, bring-the-house-down, all-go-home-now point about electric vehicles. Unless pretty much all of the energy they use comes from renewable sources, they make next to no difference to anything at all. As we sit here today, the US grid is 88 per cent powered by fossil or nuclear fuels. The UK is even worse at 91 per cent, and even the super-green Germans only achieve 20 per cent from renewables. A 2009 study by the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that if the Germans had a million electric vehicles, they would reduce their emissions by 0.1 per cent. Yes, you have read that right. One million hale and hearty Germans could all be tootling around Bavaria in electric cars and Germany’s CO2 emissions would be 99.9 per cent of what they are.

Finally, there is the rarely asked but fundamental question about whether our creaking electricity grid can handle any extra demand placed upon it by substituting fossil-fuelled cars for electric ones. The UK grid is pretty much maxed out at the moment and, thanks to persistent but perhaps not fully thought-through lobbying by the greens, 2 gigawatts of installed nuclear and coal capacity will come off line in the next three years. Demand, meanwhile, will continue to rise inexorably, so the grid is likely to run out of spare capacity in 2015 and we will start to have blackouts.

Unsurprisingly, the energy regulator Ofgem chooses somewhat less direct language and speaks opaquely of situations where ‘margins of spare capacity will not be positive’ and ‘total amount of expected energy unserved’. To you and me, this means getting out the candles, no telly and an unexpected baby boom some time in 2016.

Add in hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles all cheerfully charging up on free council electricity and the situation will get far, far worse. Research undertaken by Arizona State University suggests that if all US passenger cars were replaced by dreary grey electric ones, US generation capacity would need to double just to keep up with demand. It’s a fair assumption that the same dynamics exist in the UK, so that’s an awful lot of new power stations and transmission lines being built in leafy middle England.

Despite all these sensible objections, the middle-class greens remain fixated on electric vehicles and the industry continues to grow. To date about 151,000 have been sold although tellingly, despite the plethora of grants and free electricity, only 1,501 were sold in the UK last year.

What is less understandable is why the hard-nosed investment community remains transfixed by the same headlights. Shares in the electric car-maker Tesla have quadrupled in a year and it now has a market cap of $18 billion. This is about 25 per cent of Ford. To put this into context, Tesla first started making cars about five years ago and sells 25,000  a year. Ford has been going since 1903 and last year sold 5.5 million vehicles.

So why has most of the liberal educated middle class called this one so wrong? I think what lies behind all of the appeal of electric vehicles is that they act as a panacea to the constant white noise of environmental guilt that we feel in the West. We are the first generation in history to be told that we are destroying the planet for our children. To be told that every time we fly on a plane or turn on the aircon, a little bit of the world’s usable energy store has gone for ever. To be told that, because we in the West use at least twice as much energy per head as the rest of the world, pretty soon most of the bees will be dead, half of the developing world flooded and the rainforest gone for ever. We had the keys to the planet for 50 years and we screwed it up. It’s all going to be our fault. All of it. This drip drip of apocalyptic bad news is constant and it makes most of us feel bad and we want it to stop.

Tesla’s marketing says warm fuzzy things like ‘tread more lightly on the planet’ or ‘Roadster owners lead a truly emission-free lifestyle’. Nissan call their car the Nissan Leaf and Citroën call theirs the Citroën Zero. It’s all adspeak nonsense, of course, but it’s a pappy sweet-tasting antidote to the bad stuff we read in the Guardian. If I drive a car called a Leaf, I must be a nicer more caring person than you, and the rest of my energy-consuming materialistic lifestyle is all OK.

So electric vehicles are the opium of the greens. They don’t makes things better, in fact they probably make things much worse but they do give you a nice warm fuzzy view of your personal impact upon the planet. The laws of physics that govern your trip to the shops remain stubbornly immutable, but the nasty process of actually creating the energy that gets you there takes place somewhere else out of sight, out of mind. This is the placebo answer to the reality of climate change. Don’t stop consuming so much, don’t stop flying to your ski chalet or drinking bottled water and wines shipped halfway across the world. Don’t stop doing any of that stuff, just buy a $100,000 Tesla Roadster and you will instantly be treading more lightly on the planet.

This would all be fine if our politicians were brave enough to say that the emperor has got no clothes, but they are not. Toby and the rest of the Nissan Leaf drivers may be burying their head in the sand about the environmental cost of their ludicrously high-consumption western lifestyles — but it is Westminster City Council and the government who buy the sand and build the sandpit.

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