Nine years ago Simon Roberts read about electric vehicles (EVs) in Switzerland and decided he wanted to drive a zero emissions car in London and reduce his environmental impact.
After negotiating miles of red tape, a reserved parking bay painted right outside his house and the development of an innovative kerbside charger, this became a genuinely precedent setting urban project...
He also struggled with sourcing an electric car in the UK. Not only that, he wanted to make his car even more ecological by installing his own solar array on his house in London to supply the electricity. Aided by a grant from the DTI, he achieved his dream.
EVs are run on rechargeable batteries that power an electric motor. Most EVs are charged by simply plugging into a normal 240V 13amp electric power source – a three pin socket. The vehicles currently available in the UK have a range of approximately 50 miles (80km), depending on driving conditions, and have a top speed of 50mph (80kph). They take two hours to charge from half full and six to eight hours to charge from empty. They produce zero exhaust emissions, hardly heat up or vibrate and are almost silent. Sounds wonderful but if you haven't got a driveway, how can you charge one up?
Car Charging Station
Simon embarked on the brave mission of persuading his local council to allow him to charge his car at the kerbside. He owns a typical house in London with no garage and he wanted to demonstrate that EVs are potentially viable for urban dwellers. So, kerbside charging? First of all he needed to secure permission for a reserved parking bay from his council. Then he had to persuade his local electricity company, London Electricity, to develop a fixture to safely connect to a car unattended. London Electricity also needed local council permission to install the novel street furniture. This took four years with many hours of letter writing and meetings.
Where to Buy an Electric Car in the UK
So, having got parking and with charging about to come on stream, Simon's next obstacle was to source a vehicle. Garage conversions from conventional to electrical power are available from companies such as AVT. Simon learned that Peugeot and Citroën, however, have a large enough output of electric vehicles to run a production line in France. Furthermore they were supplying these vehicles in right-hand drive to the UK and providing the necessary servicing backup.
Simon chose a Peugeot 106 car. I asked him why. "I wanted a car and the Peugeot suits our family needs. We make a variety of journeys and if a 20 minute boost is needed it can be recharged from an ordinary three pin socket..." Getting hold of the Peugeot wasn't easy. Peugeot were only selling them to fleet operators, perhaps fearing private owners would move to parts of the country lacking the specialised garage facilities required to service them.
Simon had to set up CCCC (Capital Campaign For Clean Cars), a campaign organisation promoting the merits of electric vehicles, especially for London. The unique opportunity of an on-street charging point persuaded the Energy Saving Trust to include Simon in their electric vehicle Powershift programme and this unlocked the door for Peugeot to sell one of their electric 106 models. The 106 cost £14,300 to buy inclusive of VAT, but this was offset for Simon by a very welcome grant of £5,000 from the Powershift programme. Peugeot still own the nickel-cadmium batteries charging a monthly lease of £100. At least this covers all battery servicing and replacement, with careful containment and recycling, when the capacity starts to decline.
This achievement was worth celebrating, even shouting about. Kate Hoey MP opened the kerbside charger after driving up in the electric Peugeot 106 to a street party with good press coverage. That was in 1999 starting five years of emission-free driving to date. "Getting to that point took a lot of persistence and a lot of patience," said Simon, "but the precedent has now been set. What's more, the kerb-side charger has now been working successfully for over five years, come rain and graffiti. The worst problem with the charger has been a bite in the cable from an urban fox."
Cost of Running an Electric Car
Running costs are 1p per mile when charged overnight on Economy 7 tariff, 2.5p per mile when charged in the day and free when charged by PV. If 10,000 miles are travelled per year, the battery lease works out to 12.5p per mile. This doubles to 25p per mile after 5,000 miles have been covered. It is clear here that the battery is the significant cost, not the electricity. No financial savings here (an urban car would cost at least 20p per mile, though pump prices are rising as I write). The significance is that the vehicle is zero emissions.
Electric Cars: Pros and Cons
EVs can, of course, be charged direct from small-scale renewable systems, wind generators and photovoltaic (PV) panels, or sustainably sourced electricity from the grid. The zero emission claim is related only to the running costs of EVs. It does not include the carbon released in the manufacturing process (or, I suspect, in the delivery of the EVs – we don't have EV car carrier articulated lorries yet) but it is an important step away from fossil fuel driven vehicles.
Friends of the Earth tell us that "...every gallon of gasoline your vehicle burns puts 20lbs (9kg) of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere." Scientists taking samples from ice cores in the Antarctic confirm that both temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at any time in the last 400,000 years. Evidence from fossil plankton drilled from the seabed is more ominous: carbon dioxide levels are higher than at any time in the last 20 million years and are expected to double this century.1 People who are still denying the reality of climate change either have an economic agenda or are ill informed, but I digress.
EVs have other advantages, especially to the urban dweller. In the UK, you pay no road tax, there is free parking in some areas and reduced residents parking fees in others, no London congestion charges, and minimal servicing required of the vehicle. There are also fuel savings if you are charging from the grid, let alone from your own PV or wind system (just the pay back costs of panels or wind generators).
Photovoltaic Solar Panels: Supplying both the House and Car
Having bought the car and installed the kerbside charger, Simon then started planning his solar PV array. He has a valley roof providing easy access and one half facing south. He bought enough BP solar panels for a specified 1kW peak power with the help of a £3,000 grant from the DTI. The total cost, including installation from Cholwell Energy Systems, was £6,400. "The exciting part for me is being able to generate my own elec-tricity to supply both my house and car. I'd encourage anyone to do the same," he says. The only problem he encountered was due to the location of a radio aerial on the roof. Birds perched on it and their droppings fouled the panel. Needless to say, it had to be moved.
Besides choosing a PV array and a company to install it, Simon also signed up with a green electricity company, Ecotricity, who supply his energy on cloudy days and at night from renewable sources (wind) for the same price as his local electricity company. Ecotricity also buys back Simon's excess energy on sunny days under its Renewable Rewards scheme. "I have two meters side by side. One meter measures generated electricity and the other measures units taken from the grid. I am charged 7p a unit and paid 4p per unit from my solar array."
Being paid for electricity exported to the National Grid
I contacted Ecotricity to ask about the price difference between exporting and buying in electricity. Gary Freedman told me, "The charge for buying in electricity is higher than for exporting units to the grid because we factor in not only the cost of energy but also distribution as well." He also told me that Ecotricity is currently developing a scheme that will pay for all the units that are generated – even if you use the units yourself – under their Renewable Rewards scheme. So not only does Simon buy in less electricity now, he will also get paid for all the units he generates in the near future, regardless of whether he uses them or not.
The Renewable Obligations certification scheme issues a certificate to generators for a set amount of clean power gen-erated. This certificate is worth money to any electricity supplier. Ecotricity has decided to pass this advantage on to their customers who are grid connected and exporting units back into the system. To qualify for the Renewable Rewards scheme, their customers have to own photovoltaic panels or other small-scale generation equipment, such as wind turbines or hydro power connected to the grid. How do you get certified? You have to buy your panels from a nominated source and have them installed. I asked Gary Freedman if there was any way an owner of an existing self-installed system could join the scheme. He suggested that readers contact their local distribution network operator and gain grid connection approval in the form of documentary evidence. Once this is obtained, the user can sign up to Ecotricity's Renew-able Rewards scheme, and experience the benefits.
Advice on Electric Vehicles
Whereas the green electricity market is well developed, what are the options today for getting an electric car like Simon's? There are so many different ones coming on the market every day. Simon would like to recom-mend his Peugeot 106 but Peugeot have stopped offering them.
If you want advice on EVs of all kinds, Simon recommends you contact Drivelectric, a London based limited company who specialise in advice and consultancy on electric vehicles for individuals and corporate fleets. They source and supply vehicles (buses and bikes as well as vans and cars) and also offer support for EV drivers. Drive-lectric currently recommend the Citroën Berlingo Electrique as the best quality, safe and high performing electric vehicle but it is a van and requires converting.
So having pioneered his own London kerb-side, rechargeable vehicle, how does Simon feel about his integrated PV system and car? Naturally, he's pleased to be driving a zero emissions vehicle that is powered mainly by his own solar array. He is also delighted by the prospect of selling his electricity back to Ecotricity. For him, it's a win-win situation
1 Tim Radford, The Guardian, 11/9/04.
Capital Campaign for Clean Cars
Cholwell Energy Systems Ltd
Tel: 01803 762 628
Tel: 01932 764 800
AVT (Alternative Vehicles Technology)
Tel: 01823 480 196
Friends of the Earth