UK subsidies – Should we do more to promote EV’s and Hybrids
On the 1st of January 2011 the Guardian newspaper published an article that said 2011 was to be the year of the electric car. This is because the UK government had launched a fund, known as the ‘plug-in car grant’ to provide a £5,000 subsidy to those buying an electric car. In October 2011 the Guardian published another article saying that electric car sales had been poor and the scheme was a failure. So what is the plug-in car grant and why do some people consider it a failure? And is there anything that can be done to better promote electric vehicles and hybrids?
What is the UK electric car subsidy?
The grant was conceived by the Labour government to help subsidise the cost of electric cars, which can cost a third more than their fossil-burning rivals. Getting more electric cars on our roads is one of the ways the government intends to reduce UK carbon levels to the agreed limit for 2020. When the Conservative/LibDem coalition took over they agreed to maintain the subsidy, which wasn’t due to start until January 2011, but only for a year, after which it was to be reviewed.
Under the scheme, anyone looking to purchase one of several pre-approved models of electric car could apply for a grant of £5,000 towards the cost of the car.
Why is the subsidy considered a failure?
The main reason that the electric car grant has been considered a failure is that the uptake of electric cars has been very small, the very thing the subsidy was meant to help boost. In quarter one of 2011 465 electric cars were registered through the scheme, with 215 in Q2, and only 106 in Q3. Those numbers are well below what was expected, but still far higher than the numbers of electric cars bought in 2010.
However, the slow uptake does not necessarily mean the grant has been a failure. Electric cars are expensive – all those on the approved list for the grant would cost more than £20,000, so even with the full grant a buyer must have at least £15,000 to purchase a car. Not many people have that amount of money to spend on a car, and in such unsure economic times they are less likely to want to pay out that much, especially on a relatively new technology that has received its fair share of bad press.
What bad press?
Many people will at first be put off by the upfront cost, but this has to be considered with the fact that electric cars are road tax free, could have cheaper car insurance, and are also cheaper to fuel.
Then there is the limited range of the electric motor when compared with a petrol or diesel engine, along with the substantially longer refuelling time – even at a rare fast-charge point a Nissan Leaf takes 30 minutes for a full charge. A hybrid engine does not suffer this problem, but they are not included in the subsidy unless they can be plugged in.
And then there is the British weather. The range of an electric motor drops when you use the electrics for other functions in the car, such as wind screen wipers, lights, air conditioning, etc. All of which could be used a lot in Britain, especially in the winter months.
Finally there is the battery (or batteries) itself: After only a few years the capacity of the battery drops considerably by such an extent that it has to be replaced, and the cost a new one is four figures at the moment. The green credentials of the cars have also been called into question because of all the chemicals and processing that has to go into building the battery. Plus, when you plug them in the
electricity is being provided by a power plant that is getting its energy from where?
Will the subsidy continue?
The government is due to review the plug-in car grant in January so we won’t officially know until then, but there are plenty of people who want it to continue, including environmental groups and those with a vested interest in the electric vehicle industry. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Is there anything else that can be done to improve the uptake of electric cars?
Addressing the negative points already listed will help. Most electric cars now look like ‘normal’ ones, and plenty handle and drive like their fossil-burning brethren as well, so those issues are, arguably,
taken care of.
All new technology is expensive when it first comes out – just think of the cost of DVD players and DVD’s now compared to when they first became available. As manufacturers get better at building the cars and start producing them in greater numbers, the cost will come down. Plus, there are more and more car makers entering the electric field (pun intended) so competition could drive the cost down too.
Providing more fast-recharge points will help, but let’s not forget that recharge stations will be needed everywhere, and that means in the middle of the countryside as well as in the middle of urban areas, otherwise the B-roads of Britain will be littered with Nissan Leafs and Peugeot iOns having run out of juice.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the battery, because it is this that dictates the power, range and recharge time of the car. Improving the battery can help but there are other ways of storing energy in a car, such as super-capacitors which store energy in an electric field rather than electrochemically.
Whatever the answer, it’s clear that electric cars are here to stay. 2011 may not have been the noisy revolution that many had expected, but that’s the thing about electric cars: they’re quiet, so you can’t hear them sneaking up on you.