(Title Image: South Wales Argus)

In July 2017, the UK Government announced it was to ban the sale of petrol and diesel-fuelled cars and vans by 2040, following in the footsteps of proposed bans, or enforced reductions in sales, in Norway (from 2025) and France (2040).

Credit where it’s due, the UK is ahead of the curve – even if the ban will be implemented rather slowly; if a week’s a long time in politics, 22 years is an aeon.

The Senedd also recently held a debate on the issue, so this post is timely.

It’s highly likely most developed countries will follow suit over the coming decades. With road transport making up around 25% of the UK’s carbon emissions, it’ll be a big step towards reducing both greenhouse gases and the number of deaths caused by air pollution in built-up areas (estimated to be 2,000 people a year in Wales).

Like all seismic shifts in policy, this is going to have to be planned for to ensure a smooth transition – and it could well be something an independent Wales will have to deal with if you set the 2030s-2040s as a realistic window for independence.

In addition to the impact of driverless vehicles, this in itself is going to have an additional everyday impact on drivers but will also have a massive impact on energy infrastructure and the wider economy – with very specific impacts on Wales.

Hydrogen vs Electric

The first issue is which clean energy engine solution is the best?

Hydrogen Power

Hydrogen gas is passed through a fuel cell which mixes it with oxygen from the air. The combination generates enough energy to produce an electric current, charging a battery and driving the engine.

Riversimple, based in Llandrindod Wells (but rumoured to be considering establishing a factory in Ebbw Vale), are developing hydrogen-powered vehicles that would be contracted out to customers, with the first trials taking place this year.

Pros:

  • Far bigger driving range (similar to petrol & diesel vehicles) and faster acceleration than pure electric vehicles.
  • Refuelling takes minutes rather than tens of minutes/hours like pure electric vehicles.
  • The battery can be charged as you drive (including regenerative braking).
  • The only emission is water vapour, which is harmless to the environment.

Cons:

  • Most alternative fuel infrastructure is being focused on electric vehicles, with very little provided for hydrogen vehicles due to the higher costs involved. That means limited choice and limited refuelling opportunities.
  • Hydrogen is flammable, while hydrogen fuel and vehicles are also (for now) expensive.
  • Fuel cells decrease in efficiency the longer they’re used and would probably have to be replaced every 10 years or so.
  • Hydrogen is often created from natural gas while producing it from water (electrolysis) is incredibly energy intensive – so hydrogen vehicles aren’t entirely “green”.

(Plug-In) Electric Power

Electric vehicles are powered by batteries charged from mains electricity. It’s as simple as that.

Pros:

  • The necessary infrastructure (charging points etc.) is growing by the month, with most major car companies focusing their efforts on developing electric vehicles as opposed to hydrogen.
  • You can (theoretically) recharge anywhere with an available power socket and the cost of charging is a fraction of the cost of petrol/diesel and hydrogen.
  • If the electricity is produced from renewable sources it’s truly zero-emissions.
  • At the moment, electric vehicles are exempt from congestion charges and road tax.

Cons:

  • Compared to petrol/diesel and hydrogen vehicles, electric vehicles have limited range.
  • Recharging can take a very long time, particularly from a low battery. The shortest recharge times (i.e. a top-up) can take up to 30 minutes, but full recharges can take up to 6-8 hours.
  • Electric cars are currently more expensive than their petrol/diesel equivalents, but the prices are gradually coming down as the technology improves.
  • Limited choice of models – but this is improving as more car manufacturers come on board.

So both of the main new fuel vehicles have advantages and disadvantages. It may be the case that hydrogen will be the better option for vehicles that travel mid to long-ranges in a single journey (i.e. freight, vans, rural residents), while plug-in electric cars will be better suited to every day and shorter urban journeys….I doubt you would want to be attended to by an electric ambulance or police car, for example.

Practical Drawbacks & Issues

Everyone will have to buy a new car/van – This is the obvious one. It’ll pressurise car manufacturers to switch production to electric (or other new fuel) vehicles. If everyone has to buy a new vehicle, then it’ll be difficult if not impossible for a government to introduce a scrappage scheme because it’ll be too expensive – but without some sort of incentive, drivers may decide to stick with what they’ve got and subsequently could be caught-out by the switchover.

A massive ramping up of infrastructure to accommodate electric (and other alternative fuel) vehicles – At some point, petrol stations will have to remove traditional pumps and replace them with charging points or hydrogen pumps. That’s going to be a long process which will probably be phased in. The Zap Map shows a healthy number of charging points already in Wales, but if electric vehicles become the norm rather than the exception, charging points have to become as commonplace as petrol pumps are now – and that might need government backing and/or changes to planning rules.

Making up for lost tax revenues – HMRC estimates state that in 2015-16, fuel duties were worth £1.4billion in Welsh tax revenues (pdf), while Cardiff University’s “Welsh GERS” 2016 put the value of car tax/vehicle excise duty raised at £299million (pdf). As electric vehicles are currently exempt from both, if that policy continues there’ll be a £1.69billion hole in Welsh public finances (based on today’s figures). So after offsetting some of the savings (such as less environmental damage and lower health spending), there would need to be some way to claw that money back.

Where’s the extra electricity going to come from? – The National Grid has estimated the growing popularity of electric vehicles will require anything up to 8GW of extra generating capacity by 2030 – that’s an increase of up to 13% and the equivalent of 2/3 extra nuclear power stations on top of the ones already planned.

Needless to say, that extra power will have to be generated by green methods or it makes the whole exercise redundant. In theory that shouldn’t be much of a problem; you could easily see local fuelling stations set up renewable generators on-site. However, the quantities needed requires an expansion of generating capacity from the mains as well. One solution is lying around the Welsh coast in the form of tidal power, which might be enough to close the demand gap at a Welsh level and possibly UK level too.

The “Green Congestion” problem – Greener vehicles don’t solve traffic congestion, and as electric vehicles are quieter, there’s even the chance road accidents might increase, particularly with pedestrians. While I would fully expect Cardiff to introduce a congestion charge within the next 5-10 years, electric vehicles are exempt. At the moment that’s a good thing because they’re a minority and it encourages people to switch to greener personal transport, but once electric vehicles become commonplace, that congestion will surely come back? What happens then?

Diverting resources and attention from public transport & active travel – The “switchover” is going to require a focused effort from government, not unlike the digital TV switchover but on a much bigger scale. An alternative way to solve this problem isn’t to switch car engine systems but providing efficient 24-hour public transport and helping people take up walking and cycling for shorter journeys. After all, the greenest form of personal transport is the bicycle. It would be a scandal if Wales ends up with the widespread use of electric cars before we electrify our railways or introduce things like hydrogen-powered buses.

The Economic Impact

The automotive sector is reportedly worth £3billion to the Welsh economy and employs as many as 18,000 people.

Wales has two major manufacturing plants focused on traditional internal combustion engines – Ford in Bridgend and Toyota in Flintshire. In addition, Aston Martin and TVR expect to be producing cars at St Athan and Ebbw Vale respectively. That’s two mainstream and two luxury car brands, all of which need to start planning now for the end of petrol and diesel engines.

If they fail to do so, the future of the Bridgend and Deeside plants looks bleak, despite Toyota developing hybrid engines at Deeside and Bridgend being selected to build fuel-efficient petrol engines. Both could be obsolete in 15-20 years.

When there were doubts over the future of the Bridgend plant earlier this year, the Welsh Government said they would press Ford to consider producing electric engines in Bridgend. However, we should be going further than that and considering building entire vehicles because the switch has the potential to completely decimate the supply chain.

Companies further down the supply chain who deal with individual parts could see those parts become obsolete; for example, electric vehicles don’t need exhaust systems, while every single mechanic would have to be (re)trained to work on electric and hydrogen vehicles.

The most important component in an electric vehicle is the fuel cell/battery – and we don’t make them here, when we should.

The fuel cell is a Welsh invention, so why aren’t we laying the groundwork now to become Europe’s powerhouse (excuse the pun) of vehicle battery-making?

Combine the strength of the local supply chain in individual components with the potential for renewables. Wales has the potential to create new fuel vehicles in an environmentally-sensitive manner from the design board right through to production all within the space of 100 miles.

That’s a vision, but would the Welsh Government and the automotive sector share it? Are they willing to put in the serious work to lay the foundations now to avoid being left behind in the coming decades?