Petrol vs electric cars.


Since driving my first electric vehicle in 1993 – one of 100 BMW E30 (three series)  conversions used by the Post Office in Munich, Germany – I have been fascinated by the petrol versus electricity argument. The issue is particularly interesting in the context of countries like South Africa, where the bulk of electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations, so-called “dirty electricity.” 

There are a number of commonly made points to consider. The first is that every time an electric vehicle is charged power-stations belch out even more pollution into the atmosphere. The second is that a precious resource such as electricity should surely not be wasted on car fuel. 

Being a devout disciple of the internal combustion engine, I agreed with these arguments, not from a factual position but just because they suited me. Then I test-drove an electric prototype car produced by the CSIR in the early 1990’s. It was a Honda Prelude that had been fitted with a 150KW motor and had a battery the size of a coffin.

It could get from 0-100Kph faster than a BMW M3. It was stunning.  And I became a convert. 

But, going back to the “dirty electricity” argument, one has to start by looking at what an electric car would be replacing. Essentially the Joule could substitute any petrol or diesel powered car used exclusively for urban travel – driving to and from work, shopping, going out to restaurants and that sort of thing. It’s a suitable alternative to cars ranging from small Japanese and German hatchbacks, to big saloons and 4×4’s.

My first response to the “dirty electricity” line of thinking is that from a technological point of view it is far easier curb emission from a coal fired power station than from thousands of petrol or diesel powered motor cars. 

Secondly – and this is the cruncher – one has to remember that in turning crude oil into petrol and diesel, refineries use a huge amount of electricity. Not only that, but a considerable amount of electricity is required to power the pumps which transport fuel from the coast around the country to places like Johannesburg. 

It does not take rocket science to realise that producing enough petrol for even the most economical little car to travel 300kms probably chews up more electricity and certainly causes a lot more pollution, than producing sufficient electricity to charge the battery of an electric car.

Because electric cars like Joule are able to travel 300kms on one full battery, they can be charged in the middle of the night when electricity demand is at its lowest. This means that if a million electric cars in South Africa recharged their batteries between midnight and early morning, Eskom would probably not have to produce any more electricity than it currently does.  And that, to me, is the beauty of electric vehicles – they mostly consume electricity that would be wasted otherwise. 

Another aspect I find really exciting about electric vehicles is that there is enormous potential for continued technological development.  The massive batteries I saw in the Munich Post Office’s fleet of BMW’s  have transformed from coffin-sized gizmos (that took up the whole trunk and rear passenger space of most prototype EV’s and weighed a ton), to the size of a modest hand luggage suitcase. Modern batteries are also more efficient and can achieve more than three times the distance between charges than their old dinosaur predecessors. 

Battery development is moving at such a pace that with every year models become more efficient, smaller and a lot more reliable, not to mention cheaper and cheaper. 
I do not doubt that ten years from now batteries electric vehicles will no longer be an issue in terms of cost and efficiency.

Something else which got me excited was the programme I watched on Discovery Channel a few weeks ago in which Top Gear presenter, James May investigated research on work being done to produce electricity through “clean” technology. No coal and no nuclear. 

It won’t be long before new technology advances to the point that it is able to harness clean and free resources such as wind, waves, and hydrogen, and turn them into reasonably priced electricity. 

At the same time it must be noted that the internal combustion engine has almost reached the peak of its development and, as we know, oil reserves are not exactly limitless. 

Best of all I reckon that, just as the automobile industry has managed to get diesel engines to “sound” no different to petrol engines, in time motorists won’t be able to differentiate between the sound of an electric car and that of vehicles which run on fossil fuels. 
The more I think about the different angles of the issue, considering factors such as the demand for urban transport, relative carbon footprints, toxic emissions and so forth, the more it becomes clear to me that the whole complicated process of getting a vehicle from point A to point B is far more efficient and sustainable when done by means of electricity.

by Chris Moerdyk