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“Electric cars have zero emissions, but we must consider how we generate electricity for them”

Throughout the arc of human history, there has been one constant that determines a people’s success or failure: the ability to capture and harness energy. From early homo sapiens, who learnt to control fire for warmth and food, to the Georgians’ reliance on steam power to usher in the Industrial Revolution, history is defined by the progress made in sourcing and deploying energy. Today, we find ourselves at the crossroads of history once again as we grapple with our own generation-defining relationship with energy.

As humanity becomes more aware of its impact on the environment and planet earth, the past decade has seen an intense acceleration towards net-zero transportation, with electric vehicles becoming the default and most understood emerging transport mode of choice for many. In 2011, just 1,082 electric vehicles were registered on Britain’s roads. At the start of 2021, that figure stood at more than 150,000. 

Not only are consumers opting for electric in their droves, the push towards EVs is also being advocated for heavily by governments around the world, who are under pressure to meet their own self-imposed deadlines to protect the environment. In the UK, the aim is to reach a net-zero economy by 2050. To help reach that objective, the government has mandated that no new internal combustion engine vehicles will be sold from 2030 onwards (although hybrids can continue until 2035). Last year, I wrote for this magazine with my reaction after this move was announced, and ultimately it’s something I welcome. Big, bold and ambitious were the words I used to describe the policy announcement at the time, and I stick by them. However, since then the UK has negotiated a new trading arrangement with the European Union, which throws a sizeable spanner in the works. 

The ‘rules of origin’ component of the negotiated UK-EU deal stipulates that, by 2027, battery packs for electric vehicles will only be allowed to contain 30 per cent international content (materials and components sourced from outside the UK and European Union), or 35 per cent at the battery cell level, or face substantial tariffs, ramping up the cost of the finished vehicle when exported. This dictates the need to build battery gigafactories across Europe, including the UK. The EU has already nominated this as their second Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI) to support research and innovation in the battery value chain. It will provide up to 2.9billion Euros of public funding, unlocking an expected additional 9billion Euros in private investment.

Without electric vehicle batteries made in the UK, this country’s auto manufacturing industry risks being enticed away to China, Japan, America and Europe. This would risk the 800,000 British jobs linked to the UK automotive sector. Business sense dictates that the automotive industry will move to where the batteries are (to avoid long logistic chains of heavy and expensive inventory), and without batteries made in the UK it is unlikely that EVs assembled here will be economically viable.

Something called Moore’s Law helps explain why. It is a widely accepted principle in computing, theorising that computer processor speeds will double every two years because computer manufacturers can double the number of transistors on the motherboard. Ultimately, it’s Moore’s Law that led to computers becoming faster and cheaper, and widely available to consumers. One transistor cost roughly £6 in the early 1960s, when computers were in their infancy. Today, billions of transistors can be squeezed onto a chip roughly the size of a five-pence coin, and the cost of these transistors has dropped to no more than fractions of a penny.

Many in the auto industry are applying Moore’s Law to the evolution of electric cars, arguing that batteries improve (faster charging, longer-lasting) by around three per cent each year. When I began developing the Leaf at Nissan a decade ago, it was the first generation of advanced batteries used in the vehicle. We used Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO) 10 years ago and today the batteries found in the Leaf are Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC), a much more efficient and effective battery that lasts longer and charges faster. Many vehicles in the early years opted for LFP (Lithium Iron Phosphate) batteries with lower costs, but lower energy density. The evolution of the lithium-ion battery will continue down the Moore’s Curve, reducing the reliance on cobalt and deploying silicon. With this roadmap, it’s not unrealistic to predict that by the end of this decade we could see commercially viable solid-state batteries, and that will herald the maturity of battery technology. 

So, the batteries used in cars are coming down in price significantly, whilst simultaneously being generally better at what we are asking them to do. For governments, this can’t come soon enough. The UK government recently announced it’d be cutting the grant for electric vehicles from £3,000 to £2,500; too early in my opinion, with a more sensible approach being to offset the costs of EV grants with a rise in fuel duty. In time, however, these grants will be rendered obsolete and electric vehicles will be readily affordable to the masses, without the need for expensive subsidies. 

That’s all well and good, so long as the government can deploy a strategy that enables the UK to manufacture batteries domestically using our own chemistry. This is one of the key challenges for the politicians to get their heads around – and they need to do it soon. 

Their starting point should be to define the problem they are trying to solve. Are they trying to reduce CO2? Or are they chasing clean air? If it’s the latter, then clearly electric vehicles are the obvious solution because tailpipe emissions are eradicated, despite the legitimate environmental anxiety around how the materials for the batteries are mined and sourced, and the CO2 that’s produced in the manufacturing process. If it’s the former, then they should be focusing their energy and brainpower into hydrogen, fuel cells or synthetic fuels. Whilst synthetic fuels burn carbon, the CO2 is captured in the manufacturing process, thereby becoming ‘net zero’. It may be that, actually, politicians are trying to capture CO2 and chase clean air, in which case they (and we) must be prepared to pay the premium, because the only viable option currently is to look at fuel cells from a clean hydrogen source, which are notoriously scarce. 

The truth is that we should not legislate to make electric vehicles the only solution to reaching net zero, but adopt a Darwinist approach and enjoy the best of all. Hydrogen, for example, could outshine batteries for efficiency when it comes to heavy goods vehicles and long-haul transportation. Synthetic fuels may well continue to provide the drama, noise and excitement that we associate with sports cars, not to mention the convenience for manufacturers, who’ll be able to convert traditional internal combustion engines to work with synthetic fuels relatively easily. And there is no doubt in my mind that engineers and scientists are working on technologies right now that could result in the application of an environmentally friendly fuel that no one previously thought possible.

It is no exaggeration to say that the decisions made over the coming years will define the next era of human advancement. We must get the economics of batteries and other net-zero fuels right and, with all the upheaval we are seeing in the modern world, this is far from certain to happen seamlessly. 

As we find ourselves in the fourth iteration of the industrial revolution that started 260 years ago through the power of steam, the fifth iteration could well be powered by our ability to identify multiple net-zero modes of transport that work across land, sea and air.

Take a look at Stellantis’ first steps into hydrogen fuel cell technology here…

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