Electric cars: Our experts answer your questions

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How much does it cost to run an electric car? How can I get a charging point when I don’t have a driveway? Are they really better for the environment?

These are just some of the many questions you have been sending us about electric cars, and with more and more manufacturers investing in and developing these vehicles, more questions are being raised.

This week the government announced it is pumping nearly £40m into improving the infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Business correspondent Theo Leggett and transport correspondent Tom Burridge have been answering some of the questions sent to us by BBC News online readers.

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Phil: How much does it cost to put an electric charging point in your home?

Tom: The first thing to note is that the government provides a grant of £500. A basic charging unit can cost around the £700 mark so in that case you would have to pay the remaining £200.

However the price of installation can vary depending on how far the charging point is from the mains supply.

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Faster charging units can cost around £1,500 (minus the £500 grant).

If you don’t buy a charging unit you can still charge your car from your mains supply using a simple bit of kit provided by the car manufacturer, but it will charge more slowly.

Sarah: What happens to electric car batteries at the end of their life? Are they sent to landfill to pollute in a different way?

Tom: Under European Union law it is illegal for vehicle batteries to be incinerated or sent to landfill. However, the UK currently has no specialist facilities which can commercially separate the metals in the battery for reuse.

The numbers of used lithium-ion electric car batteries produced in Britain are still relatively low. Any old batteries can be exported to a European country which does have specialist recycling facilities.

The batteries are then incinerated at high temperatures and roughly 50% of each battery, including critical elements such as the cobalt and nickel, can be recovered.

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The other option is to reuse the batteries. After about 8 to 10 years a lithium-ion electric car battery’s performance will drop significantly.

The battery is then not good enough to be used to power an electric vehicle. However they can be used to store electricity. For example, old electric car batteries are part of a back-up power system at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam.

In the UK, one waste management firm that I contacted, Cawleys, operates a service to safely collect, dismantle EV battery packs and work out which ones are good enough to be reused and which should be sent abroad for recycling.

Experts at the Faraday Institution’s ReLiB project are leading UK research to develop more sophisticated techniques to recycle electric vehicle batteries. But in short, recycling electric vehicle batteries in Britain is a work in progress.

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Media captionSome common concerns about electric cars explained.

John: I live in a mid-terrace house and am restricted to a public car park at the end of the street – how would I be able to charge an electric car?

Tom: With some difficulty is, for now at least, the short answer.

A colleague who lives in London did charge his car from his terraced house and covered the cable, which ran across the pavement, with basic safety kit to stop passing pedestrians from tripping up. He okayed everything with his council but ultimately his neighbours weren’t happy and he decided to give his electric car up.

Charging points installed inside lamp posts are being rolled-out on some streets in Coventry, Buckinghamshire and parts of London. And the government has just awarded £40m to various companies to develop new technologies such as wireless charging panels and pop-up chargers built into the pavement.

If you have a public car park near your house then that is another reason for you to lobby your local council to install some charging points.

More charging infrastructure, especially for areas with no off-street parking is coming but it will take time and how fast it arrives on your street is, to some extent, a post-code lottery.

Emily: Can we produce enough electricity to support everyone having an electric car?

Theo: There are currently 31.5 million cars on the road in Britain, according to the DVLA – and 31 million of them are still petrol or diesel powered. If we are to replace all of them with electric models, of course we will need plenty of power.

But it isn’t just a question of how much electricity will be required. When it will be needed is just as important. If 31 million people come home and charge their cars at the same time, the load on the network will be enormous, but if that demand can be spread through the day, then the strain will be much less.

George Beard from the non-profit Transport Research Laboratory suggests “customers could be incentivised to charge their vehicle at non-peak times or even hand control of the charging to their energy supplier.”

Two technologies are likely to come to the fore here. Smart charging will enable cars to draw electricity from the grid at times of day when supplies are plentiful or when overall demand is relatively low.

Vehicle-to-Grid should allow electric cars to act as power banks, not only taking power from the grid, but returning some of that electricity at peak times, to alleviate strain on the system – while making sure that the car is fully charged when it is actually needed.

The National Grid publishes annual “future energy scenarios”, in which it attempts to crunch the numbers and work out how much power we will actually need. Its latest assessment says that by 2050 overall electricity demand from transport will rise by between 22% and 30% a year – but PEAK demand could increase by as little as 6% or as much as 22%.

That does mean we will need to generate more power. National Grid expects a significant increase in solar and wind generation across its scenarios – but it also assumes new nuclear plants will be built to replace our current ageing reactors.

It believes a minimum of 7GW of new nuclear capacity will be built – or more than double the expected output of the Hinkley Point C station that is currently under construction.

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Media captionHow is Formula E helping us make the shift towards electric cars?

Lucille: Can petrol cars be converted to use electricity?

Theo: In theory, there’s no reason why you couldn’t take the engine out of your car, fit an electric motor and a bunch of batteries, and drive it away. There are even instructions on how to do it available on the internet. But while that might be an entertaining challenge for the home mechanic, it’s unlikely to be the best option for your average driver.

Part of the challenge in building an electric car is maximising the energy available from the battery pack, to give the best compromise between range and performance, as well as maximising battery life.

The new models being built by both mainstream manufacturers like VW and Daimler, and by technology sector interlopers such as Tesla, rely on sophisticated software to do all of this. Your home conversion is unlikely to have the same technological wizardry on board.

Another issue is weight. Electric cars need lots of batteries, and batteries are heavy. Carmakers have put a lot of effort into making sure that this weight doesn’t affect the handling of the car too much. Again, it’s hard to do properly at home.

Of course, some manufacturers have themselves converted existing designs to electric power. But that involves compromises – and most of the new models coming onto the market over the next few years will be bespoke electric designs.

Mark: When can we expect the range of an electric car to be over 300 miles (483km)?

Theo: In theory, you can already, though it might cost you a fair bit. Tesla claims its Model S Long Range will do 375 miles on a charge, when measured using the new WLTP standard which manufacturers must now use under EU law. In the real world it may be rather less than that, but still in the 300 mile ballpark.

The problem is, it costs more than £80,000.

If you want something more affordable, the Nissan Leaf costs about £31,000 – but the standard model has a theoretical range of just 168 miles. The E+ version can do up to 239 miles, but costs about £8,000 more. So you get what you pay for.

But it’s worth remembering that carmakers are falling over themselves to develop new electric cars at the moment – and as the technology becomes more widespread, it will also become cheaper. It wouldn’t be surprising if a 300 mile range becomes the norm pretty quickly.

Ian: How can electric cars be environmentally friendly when the electricity that powers them comes from power stations that burn fossil fuels?

Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environment analyst, responded to this question:

“While electric vehicles don’t produce “tailpipe” emissions like traditional cars, the electricity to power the vehicles has to come from somewhere. This means that there are “upstream” emissions.

However, the European Federation for Transport and Environment analysed data from a number of studies and found that “a battery electric car over its lifetime produces 50% less CO2 emissions than an average EU car today”.

It is also worth bearing in mind that in the first five months of 2019, Britain generated more power from zero-carbon sources than fossil fuels.

However, the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions points out that drivers still tend to be choosing hybrid vehicles – rather than pure electric cars – and that will lock in fossil fuel usage into the future.


Get involved in the conversation about electric cars and commuting on our Facebook group ‘Your Daily Journey’.

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