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We need a route map for EV transition

John Redwood MP
September 20, 2023

All the main parties in Parliament want to get us to net zero in a hurry. All accept that converting people to battery cars and heat pumps is a crucial part of that journey. Before we plunge in with some of the policies proposed which we may come to regret we need to set up a proper system for carbon accounting. We also need to ensure what we do here does not end up with more carbon dioxide produced elsewhere. Closing a blast furnace in the UK to import steel from a blast furnace abroad might well increase world CO2 output at least by the amount of the extra transport, whilst losing us the jobs and tax revenues.

We need to be aware that concentrating on nationally determined contributions as the jargon has it could have this perverse effect of encouraging imports and ending up with more world wide CO2. The conversion to some green products is equally problematic.

Let us take the case of the new battery car. Someone with enough money to afford one, and with a drive or home garage that can take a fast charger, acquires a new electric car. They will be charging it with electricity largely drawn from fossil fuels. There is only so much renewable energy even on a day with wind and sun. We use all that for our current demand. Adding a new battery car in place of a petrol car will require top up power probably from a gas fired power station. There is also the issue of all the CO2 produced in the manufacture of the battery and the vehicle, in the production of the metals and minerals needed for the fabrication, and later in life for the safe disposal of the old battery. Some estimates suggest running your older petrol car for longer generates less CO2 than buying a new battery car.

The same is true of the heat pumps. Heat pumps particularly on cold days need plenty of electricity to get them to work. If this power comes from fossil fuel generation how does that help? It might be more fuel efficient to burn the gas in a home boiler than to burn it in a power station and have energy loss on conversion to electricity, and on transmission of electricity.

The electrical revolution many seek needs huge investment in a whole range of changes. There needs to be a massive expansion of the grid to take all the extra power, and in bigger cables under streets and to homes and factories. All that copper, steel and construction means more CO2. There needs to be a much bigger expansion of renewable generation to cover the needs of all the new electrical vehicles and devices. There needs to be successful investment in ways of storing energy on windy and sunny days to use on cold windless evenings.

The electrical revolution many seek needs huge investment Quote

Fortunately many different technologies are being tried out. It could be converting vehicles to synthetic fuels will be easier than switching to battery versions. Most think aviation will need sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Many think trucks and heavy plant will need derivatives of hydrogen. The EU is wanting to roll out hydrogen fuelling points as well as chargers across their highway network. We need to see the results of these trials and let consumers judge which technology they think they want to buy rather than dictating before all the evidence is in. This year so far I read that sales of battery cars to individuals have fallen in the UK whilst fleet sales have continued to rise thanks in part to generous tax allowances. One of the problems with encouraging the switch to electric cars is the big loss of fuel duties that would result. Buyers of electric cars will want to know what the different parties have in mind by way of motoring taxes to replace the fuel duty.

The danger in current policy is car companies get too distant from what their customers want, forcing them to demand ever more subsidy to keep them going. Rushing to ban new petrol and diesel cars here will not necessarily help, as people will still be able to buy nearly new petrol and diesels from other places where new ones are still permitted. Capturing all the green jobs also needs some work, as China has developed so dominant a position in the supply of batteries, electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels.

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John Redwood is the Conservative MP for Wokingham and a former Secretary of State for Wales.

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