We bought an electric car ... sort of
The area I live in is considered Inner London, which will be subject to the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in 2021. As someone who is not enthusiastic about the idea of early onset dementia or meeting my untimely end due to cardiovascular disease, I am a supporter of Mayor Sadiq Kahn’s plan to reduce air pollution.
I am also aware that diesel vehicles are more fuel efficient than petrol vehicles in terms of CO2 emissions. However, most diesel vehicles built before 2015 will not meet ULEZ standards; meanwhile, petrol vehicles dating back to 2006 are likely to pass. In our pursuit for better air quality, it is important that we also focus on our need to tackle climate change. If the vehicle fleet simply switches from diesel to petrol, we may have fixed one problem by creating another.
Our 2006 petrol family sedan actually qualifies for the ULEZ, but we wanted to take our commitment to air quality a step further. I understand that having a car in London is an indulgence. I am a huge advocate of public transportation and use it the majority of the time. However, for journeys where our family of four is on the move, I wanted to have the ability to transport my children in proper car seats. For better or worse, this is my ‘mama bear’ instinct taking over.
We started with the premise that we wouldn’t buy a diesel car due to air quality or a petrol car, given that electric vehicles are cleaner, even when charged on a coal grid. This left us with the following options:
1. Fully electric vehicle
2. Electric vehicle range extender
3. Plug-in hybrid
We don’t have off-street parking, but we do have chargers near our home. We estimated that we travel between 10-15 miles over the course of a weekend and, since we use public transportation during the week, we didn’t require much in terms of battery range. We’d likely only need to charge a fully-electric car once per month, but a plug in hybrid would require building weekly charging into our lives.
A hybrid would be handy for longer trips, as it would enable us to go farther distances without the need to recharge. However, there are several car-sharing schemes that would provide us with the ability to rent a petrol or diesel car for longer distances, including Zipcar and Virtuo. For those who purchase a new fully-electric Nissan Leaf, they are able to borrow a diesel or petrol vehicle from the Nissan dealership (free of charge) for two-week periods during the first three years of ownership.
Unless we bought a Tesla with a battery manufactured at their solar powered Gigafactory in Nevada, odds are the battery pack in our new car would be from China and, equally likely, manufactured on a coal-powered grid. Due to the manufacturing process, this would make the typical electric vehicle more carbon intensive to manufacture than an internal combustion engine. I inquired at the dealerships and searched online for more information regarding the batteries themselves but, not surprisingly, this level of supply chain detail is not readily available to the end consumer.
According to this article, typical driving patterns would result in needing to own a car for greater than 10 years to realise the overall carbon emissions benefit. Optimising both tailpipe emissions as well as overall CO2 emissions meant we wanted to have the smallest battery that met our mileage needs.
This pushed plug-in hybrids to the top of our list. They tend to have smaller batteries that help optimise the internal combustion engine’s use, but also offer the ability to use full battery power. In the end, we bought a used plug-in hybrid Mini Countryman that claimed to have 25 miles to a charge, but is really giving us 12-15 miles to a charge. While I’d love to charge the car less frequently, it has become our Saturday morning ritual and accomplishes our two objectives: to reduce air pollution and optimise CO2 emissions.
In most instances, I would expect a fully electric vehicle would be the better choice. We travel unusually short distances and are city dwellers with a high degree of access to public transit. I also want point out that there is always a breakeven point on a battery, where no matter what the CO2 emissions were during manufacturing, the car will have a lower overall carbon footprint. Our excersie was about optimisation and we’re happy with our car and our Saturday morning charging routine. It might not be for everyone, but I am confident that there is a low emissions solution for you out there too.
I have done a lot more research on this topic than was possible to shove into a blog post, so if you have questions around the practicalities if EV charging in London or available vehicle models, etc, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources for Curious Minds
Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ)
Electric Cars are Cleaner Even When Powered by Coal (Bloomberg)
The Dirt on Clean Electric Cars (Bloomberg)
Car Myth Buster - Efficiency (Clean Technica)