Thursday 13 December 2018

Like Brexit, it has been a rocky road to drive electric

Switching from an internal combustion engine car to an electric vehicle has been fraught with pitfalls, writes David Robbins

Dr David Robbins is a lecturer in the School of Communications at DCU. He is co-creator of DCU’s new MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media & Society
Dr David Robbins is a lecturer in the School of Communications at DCU. He is co-creator of DCU’s new MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media & Society

David Robbins

My decision to trade in a perfectly good Audi A4 1.6 for an all-electric Nissan Leaf about two years ago coincided with the Brexit referendum in the UK. The two events have much in common. They were both impulsive and driven by emotion. And, as the passage of time has shown, neither was very well thought through.

I was at a talk by British climate change expert Prof Kevin Anderson at DCU. He had taken the ferry and train over. In fact, he hadn't been on a flight for seven years. He said if those of us who work on climate change, who understand what's happening and who know what it will take to tackle it, if we don't change our behaviour, how can we expect anyone else to?

A couple of days later, I was driving home in a nice, white demo model Nissan Leaf. It was only after I had bought the thing that I began to research what it involved - a bit like Boris Johnson and Brexit.

Problem one was my house. It doesn't have a driveway, and you need a driveway to get a home charging unit fitted. I thought I could just charge at public charge points. According to the ESB, "Ireland has one of the most advanced EV charging networks in Europe". This will be as smooth and frictionless as the NI border.

Problem two was that the nearest public charge points to my house were not reserved for EVs. They were just like regular street parking spaces and were constantly blocked by normal internal combustion engine cars (ICEs in EV lingo). This ceased to be a concern when two nearby chargers were removed by the ESB following campaigns by local residents. There are only nine on-street chargers reserved for EVs in Dublin city.

Problem three came when I keyed our destination into the on-board satnav and a voice said: "You may not be able to reach your destination." What? We're only going to Navan! Here was problem four. Range - or lack of - and its stress-inducing friend: range anxiety, that horrible feeling you won't make it to your next charge point.

EV owners can talk for ever about range. How the range on your display is not to be relied on. How range goes down in cold weather or when you put the heating on or demist the windscreen. How driving in the slipstream of a truck can increase your range and driving hard can reduce it.

EV batteries measure their capacity in kilowatt hours -the more kwh the battery has, the better the range. My Leaf has a 24kwh battery, which gives a real-world range of about 110km (or 150km in Nissan world). Batteries are getting bigger and better all the time; the new Renault Zoe has a 40kwh battery, and the Tesla Model S (the car EV owners dream of) has 100kwh.

Along with mastering the language of joules and watts, EV owners have to learn about the different kinds of charge points, connectors and cables. Naturally, there is no standard charging system. Instead, different cars have different cables and plugs, and batteries charge at different rates.

After a while posting and replying on the two EV Facebook pages, I learned more about EVs and their owners. For instance, quite a lot are in it because of the tech. They are engineers or scientists or electricity nerds. A second cohort are in it to save money, and a third, smaller group drive EVs for environmental reasons.

Many can charge at home and at work. The problems arise for those who have to interact with the public charging infrastructure which was installed when the Greens were in Government and there was some political will to encourage EVs. Very little is now being spent on maintaining what's there, and there are no plans to extend the network. So you have a poorly maintained network and a gradually increasing number of EVs trying to use it. Tempers and stress levels are rising. EV owners debate long and hard about charging "etiquette". There is an emergency stop button on fast chargers and a lot of debate about when and in what circumstances it's OK to press this and disconnect another car's charge.

When I was a new, enthusiastic EV owner, I used to take the Leaf on long trips. It was very stressful. Sometimes, I'd get to a charge point at a motorway service station to find it was out of order or that there were two other cars queueing to use it. You might be charged up and gone in 30 minutes, or there for hours. I now rent an ICE for long trips.

I also discovered there is a limit to the number of fast charges the battery can take without overheating. After three fast charges on a trip to Cork in those early, carefree days, the battery was getting dangerously hot.

Despite all this, the future of motoring is definitely electric. A total of 16 countries aim to phase out ICE cars at various dates up to 2040. In Ireland, the National Development Plan says there will be a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and that there will be 500,000 private EVs on the road by then.

At the moment, there are about 4,000, accounting for only 0.47pc of new car sales, compared with nearly 40pc in Norway. Globally, EV and plug-in hybrid sales increased by 58pc in 2017 from 2016, with over 1.2m units sold.

To get Ireland's EV fleet from 0.47pc to 33pc in 13 years needs some major policy initiatives. The only new move the Government has made recently is to give EVs a 50pc discount on motorway tolls. Many EV owners find this almost comically inadequate.

There is also Government reluctance to invest in chargers until EV numbers grow, but they won't grow until prospective buyers feel reassured that they'll be able to charge.

A third of Ireland's CO2 emissions come from transport, and it's rising. Transition to EVs would cut that dramatically and help avoid EU fines for missing our emissions targets, but that requires buy-in from several Government departments (Climate Action, Transport, Finance), and multiple local authorities and Government agencies.

Those who own EVs love them. They are great to drive, quiet and responsive, and reduce emissions, pollution and noise. But the lack of a reliable charging infrastructure is holding back change.

You often hear car owners refer fondly to their ageing family car - "It might be old, but at least it gets me from A to B." Talk to EV owners, and they want to know how far A is from B, and whether there's a working charger in between.

Dr David Robbins is a lecturer in the School of Communications at DCU. He is co-creator of DCU's new MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media & Society

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