Electric vehicles: pointless without green energy

A new report by Atkins is calling on joined up thinking in green transport and energy policies to make low carbon travel a reality

Sales of electric vehicles are rising, but promoting their use is hopeless as a means of reducing carbon emissions if batteries are not powered by green, renewable energy; and further critical growth is unlikely anyway, without a rethink on provision of power for recharging. So says a new study by Atkins, published to highlight the lack of joined up policies in green transport and energy.

The study report, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles – implications for the energy network, shows worldwide sales of electric cars are rising as technology costs reduce and environmental benefits increase while prices and tax incentives help more hybrid and fully electric vehicles out of showrooms.

Big questions remain over how the can be powered sustainably, however. While electric vehicles emit zero carbon dioxide out on the road, the benefits for the environment are only real if the energy is generated by low-carbon, renewable means. The Atkins report also points out that if electric vehicles become owned by the majority of car-owners, or even a critical mass of motorists, then they are likely to want to charge their vehicles at about the same time, when they get home in the evenings – causing spikes in energy demand.

Such challenges call for close collaboration between transport and energy industries, says the author of the report, Atkins fellow and technical director Andrew McFarlane. "The UK government’s target to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, requires that 60% of new cars are powered by electricity within 15 years. This requires a step change in the way we use electricity – in our homes, our workplaces and on our roads. Finding effective ways to integrate the benefits of electric vehicles into our energy use will be critical.”

McFarlane's study states a series of key questions, of where and when people will recharge their cars; how power networks will cope with surges in demand; and the climatic impacts of sources of all that electrical power.

"One approach to addressing the strain on power supply would be to encourage people to avoid peak demand periods by charging their electric vehicles overnight. However, 30% of UK residents do not have off-street parking. Providing all car owners with the infrastructure for overnight charging would come at a significant cost and involve a range of stakeholders.

“Atkins is already working with clients and governments to co-create intelligent mobility solutions. We now need to bring energy providers into the discussion so that we understand and can influence when and where electric and connected and autonomous vehicles will be recharged to minimise pressure on the national grid and carbon emissions from the power source.”