Jamie Delargy: We must drive home the fact that going electric on our roads is not sci-fi fantasy
The Government has pledged to end the sale of all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, replacing them with ones powered by electricity. Is this feasible or will the policy stall? Jamie Delargy looks at the problems
It's rush hour in Belfast city centre and the streets are packed with vehicles. But silence reigns. It's so quiet. For the first time in well over a century you can hear the birds singing in the trees around City Hall. Inside one car, a teenage girl is watching a documentary on urban transport in the 20th century. She looks amazed at images of an atmosphere saturated with noise and toxic fumes. The narrator says this was normality then and everybody accepted it unquestioningly.
This is no sci-fi fantasy. Cars are going electric. We now have an announcement which will mark a decisive point in the transformation of travel. From 2040 it won't be possible to buy a new petrol or diesel car. Contrary to what some have imagined, internal combustion engines won't be banned from the streets on that date, but they will be on the way out.
Strictly speaking, the announcement by the Government doesn't necessarily apply here. Control over environmental issues has been devolved to Stormont.
It's up the Executive, when it's restored, to implement a policy on electric cars. In my view, it is inconceivable that we would do something different from the rest of the country.
Already some have raised objections. Electric cars are not a practical proposition for commuters. They're far too pricey and a lack of charging points could easily leave drivers stranded. In any case, the power system couldn't cope with the massive surge in demand.
Electric cars are undeniably expensive. That largely explains why there are only about a thousand of them in Northern Ireland.
What puts them out of most people's reach is the cost of the battery. But the price of storage has been falling dramatically. Battery prices have dropped by more than 90% in a decade and are set to fall further as a result of advances in technology and Tesla-style gigafactories.
It's thought that by the middle of the next decade, a medium-sized electric car will match petrol and diesel models on price. At that point sales will ramp up with or without subsidies not least because the cars will be so cheap to run. The fuel cost for a round-trip from Belfast to Ballymena will be less than £3 at today's prices.
Another deterrent to electric car uptake is a lack of places where you can power up. According to ecarNI, the body with responsibility for providing refuelling spots for electric cars, there are just over 350 public charge points here. A further 40 charge points on public sector property are accessible to ordinary motorists. In total, that's only sufficient to cater for around 400 drivers at any one time. Clearly a massive investment is called for if the go electric policy is to be credible.
That leaves the question of whether the network can cope. In short, it can with some significant reform and investment. And by the way, it won't mean a power plant at the end of every street. A few back of the envelope calculations show how demand for electricity could rise if the one million cars and vans here were powered by batteries.
On the assumption that each covers 8,000 miles a year on average, consuming 0.3 kWh of electricity per mile, Northern Ireland would need an extra 2.4 billion units of electricity annually. That sounds an awful lot but it represents a total boost in demand of around 30%.
Even if the outcome were a bit higher, the fact is that we could handle it. One extra 400 MW power station along with additional wind and solar farms should be enough to meet the new need.
Of course it's not that simple. If all those electric car owners hooked up their vehicles to the power supply as soon as they got home, they would crash the system.
To prevent blackouts, drivers will have to be encouraged to charge overnight when demand is low and incidentally when wholesale prices are cheap. It would involve the widespread installation of smart meters and the introduction of tariffs offering time of day prices. Such arrangements are already available to businesses. It just means extending them to consumers.
If some think we're moving too quickly towards the adoption of electric cars, others will argue that the pace is too slow. I disagree. Power generation in Northern Ireland still relies far too heavily on coal. A change right now from petrol or diesel to electricity could just be a case of switching from one dense greenhouse gas emitting fuel source to another.
However, Kilroot Power Station, which burns coal, is due to quit production in the early part of the next decade as a result of the EU's industrial emissions directive. It's likely to be replaced with a gas-fired plant which will have a much lower output of climate warming carbon dioxide.
On top of that, we already have 1,000 MW of installed wind farm capacity. That's set to rise by 40%. Solar farms are also expected to make a greater contribution to green electricity production.
In short, motorists who switch to electric cars in the future can be assured that they are helping to keep global temperatures at a manageable level. They will also be freeing our streets from toxic air pollution.
The case for electric cars has now become irresistible.
Jamie Delargy is a business commentator