20/02/2020

 

My granddaughters, who are age one and three, will never own a new petrol or diesel car. Boris Johnson’s decision to bring forward the date of the ban on new internal combustion engine cars to 2035, is a big strategic decision. It will affect the personal transport of millions of people today, and generations to come.

2020 is the year I’m trying out electric cars, I have ordered a Nissan Leaf and it arrives in spring. Between taking the test drive and ordering the vehicle, the waiting time increased significantly so it is obvious that I’m not alone in my interest. Given Nissan restructured staff before Christmas, I hope my order is part of a trend that will see it become more optimistic about its post-Brexit future.

I would like to claim that I was driven by concern for the environment, but I’m sorry, I didn’t respond to the extreme protests of Extinction Rebellion. In due course I could consider a hydrogen vehicle but for now I’m going partially electric due to a Government ‘bribe’.

The current position is that I drive a Range Rover. The vehicle is made in Britain, with many parts coming from factories in the North East. There are no delivery emissions from ships to import it. It is a recent model so it has a relatively light frame, made of aluminium. The weight saving delivers good mpg compared to recent Range Rover models. Furthermore, it has computer monitored ‘Ad-Blu’, ensuring that any particulate emissions are minimised. Most ‘green’ politicians don’t even know what ad-blu is, but every company car or van driver in the North East does. It is a technical solution that delivers much cleaner diesel emissions.

Now to the new Government ‘bribe’. I won’t compare the Nissan Leaf to my Range Rover but to a regular compact car, a VW Golf diesel. My staff have cars of similar value and when you see what the Government has done you can understand why, as an employer, I want to switch to electric.

Under the current company car tax regime a small compact diesel care will result in a staff member paying £1,711 to £3,422 per year tax on the vehicle, depending on their tax band. Furthermore, the business pays tax of £1,181 on the vehicle too. From April, cars that are powered exclusively by electricity attract zero tax from either the employee or the employer (this is for one year only, next April a tiny 1% tax rate applies). Electric cars result in tax cuts for employee and business alike.

As a smaller firm with five vehicles it makes sense to switch but doing so does present some problems. The two principle obstacles are lack of charging points and lack of cars to purchase. The EU is dealing with the supply side. It has introduced new rules from this year which ‘fine’, or tax, car manufacturers for every petrol or diesel car they sell. The penalty is a maximum of €95 (£81) per car for each gram per km by which firms miss the EU target of 95 gram per kilo emissions. This has been phased in and there are exemptions and derogations, but it has got the supply of cars electrified. A clutch of new vehicles will hit the market soon and consumer choice will be enhanced.

This leaves range anxiety – “will my battery run out before I’m home?” – and the only way to tackle this is many more charging points. Currently, there are approximately 30,000 charging points at 11,000 locations around the UK, but there are over 20 million cars. So a massive switch to electric vehicles will necessitate a massive investment in chargers, costing billions. At the recent Tees Valley LEP – where I sit as a member – we discussed the Tees Valley Transport Plan. It was full of support for public transport, for which it has been very dynamic and effective. But to reduce emissions from cars it needed to think about electric charging. A project worth nearly £10m is being bid for, this could produce numerous public charging points around the area. My own office will have charging points soon, North East companies like CMS and Elmtronics have taken a lead on this matter and are installing at a rapid pace. The one outside my office will charge two cars at 22kw and will cost between £3500 - £5000 plus VAT to install. Businesses will need support to make these investments and it won’t be long before office buildings without chargers will be more difficult to sell.

Of course electric vehicles will be worthless without an electricity supply, so could we actually charge all the cars if everybody switched? According to the National Grid, there is enough capacity in the system to charge all the electric vehicles expected on the road but we might need to regulate peak demand. In 2018 National Grid said “Nine million electric vehicles on UK roads might require 8GW of extra power generation capacity if people charge them when they like. But smart charging could cut that to 4GW, potentially less.” This is an oblique reference to rationing demand, but the real answer is to power up the UK with more clean electricity. The UK offshore windfarm at Dogger Bank will become critical to this, it will be the largest in the world and will be served by a supply chain in the North East. Big battery storage has an important role to play. At the moment though I envy, France with its clean reliable supply of nuclear energy!

There are environmental arguments against electric cars. One is the sourcing of lithium for batteries. Mining it is a messy environmentally damaging business, but I understand one North East offshore company will soon be announcing new technology to allow the sourcing of metals from the ocean floor in an environmentally sustainable way. There are access arguments too; are electric cars accessible to poorer people? The cars are more expensive, people who live in houses with no private driveway have difficultly accessing chargers, and the Government will lose up to £28billion in fuel duty if it doesn’t re-focus its tax take. These things need to be addressed but the strategic decision to phase out fossil fuel cars has been taken and people need to think ahead in the time allowed.

For many years the political left, and that often includes an element of the environment movement, have had it in for the car. It is the transport of choice for many people, providing an individual freedom that is contrary to their idealised world of state-run railways and buses. The environmental case against the car is propagated in schools and online, without consideration of how technology can help clean up. I worry that young people have been brainwashed against driving on eco-grounds. But a car affords personal liberty that public transport cannot replicate and attempts to curtail it are a form of control over our lives. To the young people who have not learned to drive because of the environment, I suggest buying L-plates, because personal motor cars have not gone away. Years ago my phone was attached to a landline in the hallway. Thanks to the Boris bribe, within months I’ll be charging both my car and my iPhone every night. My grandchildren might not be polluting as much when they drive but they should not be denied the freedom a car affords. The North East, from the Nissan factory to our great process industries on Teesside, is at the front of the electric car revolution. Let’s charge up and get motoring. 

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