Electric cars in Northern Ireland – another perspective

On Friday just past, Slugger contributor Patrick Murdoch had an interesting article about his experiment with electric vehicle ownership. Patrick’s principal observation – that the electric car charging network in Northern Ireland is not the greatest – is not entirely inaccurate, but I disagree with his implication that this makes owning an EV practically impossible. As an EV driver myself – I’ve had a Nissan Leaf 30kWh for just under a year now – I thought it would be useful to offer a complementary perspective.

My Nissan Leaf, charging from my 6.6kW wall charger at home.

Why EV

Before I describe my own experience, it’s useful to discuss why electric cars are important; why, eventually, they will end up replacing cars which use fossil fuels; and why, in the decades ahead, future generations will come to see burning petrol and oil as an anti-social activity, viewing it in the same way as we now view the pre-Victorian practice of dumping sewage onto city streets.

Electric cars require significantly less energy to move. Not only do they recover energy from regenerative braking, and do not need to be kept running when the car is stationary, but their motors are simply more efficient, converting much more of the energy they use into useful work.

My Leaf, driven normally (max 60mph on a flat motorway), uses about 0.3kWh to drive one mile. My previous car, a turbodiesel Honda Civic, also driven normally, consumes 1kWh of energy to drive one mile, just over three times as much as the Leaf, even though it is slightly lighter. If driven conservatively at 30mph, the Leaf gets even better, using 0.16kWh for one mile. Driven aggressively, at 80mph, the Leaf expends 0.5kWh/mile – still half the usage of the diesel even if we assume the diesel consistently returns 50mpg.

To compare, you’ll use about 1kWh to run your electric shower for 10-15 minutes, or to run your tumble drier for around 20-25 minutes. A litre of diesel oil, fully burned, contains about 10kWh. A typical household gas boiler will use around 15kWh (from gas) for each hour it is running.

As well as using less energy to move, electric cars can be fuelled much more flexibly. Right now, just after 10:30PM on Saturday night, my Leaf is plugged in and charging. At this moment, 49% of Northern Ireland’s electricity generation is coming from wind turbines – it being a relatively windy night. This means that half of the energy going into my car involves no fuel being burned. Almost all of the remaining 51% is coming from the two combined cycle gas turbine power stations at Coolkeeragh and Ballylumford. Gas burns much more cleanly than oil or coal, and these high-tech CCGT plants can extract in excess of 50% of the energy from the fuel. When we’re drawing power from the Moyle interconnector, we’re using a source that consists partially of nuclear energy, and – whisper it – power stations which use sustainable biomass in the form of wood pellets, such as Drax.

Some EV owners, such as longtime NI enthusiast @plugincarguy, also have solar panels. A bright, clear day even in winter, can be enough to add 20-25 miles of driving to a typical electric car. A sunny summer’s day can yield 100 miles. Over the month of May 2016, @plugincarguy’s panels yielded 573kWh, enough energy to drive for over 2000 miles.

Even if you reject the experts on man-made climate change (despite all the evidence and scientific consensus that it is occurring), oil supply poses a serious concern with energy security, coming as it does from less than friendly states such as Russia and countries in the Middle East. Tensions around oil destabilise countries and drive a great proportion of the world’s geopolitical problems.

If supporting despotic regimes doesn’t faze you, there are other problems still. Burning oil causes significant pollution, especially in cities. Diesel engine exhaust has recently been classified as carcinogenic, and a major contributor to excessive nitrogen dioxide levels in cities. Sadiq Kahn issued a request to Londoners to avoid unnecessary journeys and to turn their engines off instead of idling to try to deal with a spike in the city’s pollution. On several occasions Paris has restricted cars driving into the city to try to combat a similar problem. Burning diesel has been shown to directly lead to human deaths.

The Volkswagen scandal serves as a reminder that diesel exhaust systems are having to become so complicated and expensive that major manufacturers are prepared to dice with the law – law which reflects the deadly nature of diesel exhaust – rather than ask their customers to accept vehicles which perform poorly. Large cities are moving to the point where they may completely ban diesel cars. In the longer term, some governments, including the UK government, are eyeing a complete ban on diesel passenger cars. Diesel car drivers can expect, in the near future, significant hikes on diesel fuel and road tax, with petrol following not far behind, as governments begin to deploy stick as well as carrot to encourage drivers to switch to EVs.

Driving and maintaining an EV

I’m no petrolhead, but I’ve owned a few cars, including a very nice 2009 VW Scirocco 2.0 GT-TSI. My Nissan Leaf is the nicest car I’ve ever driven. There is almost no noise. There is no clutch and there are no gears, and no need for a turbo which means the car is extremely responsive. It darts away fast from a standing start – between 0-30mph it responds like a sports car, which is very handy when navigating around a city. Due to the position of the battery and its weight, the car reassuringly hugs the road. Travelling along a smooth road at a constant speed – cruise control is standard – it feels like it is running along rails. The car has been consistently reliable from new.

With no clutch or gearbox, lubrication, timing, exhaust, fuel, alternator, air intake or injectors, an electric car is a much simpler machine mechanically, with fewer moving parts and a correspondingly reduced need for maintenance. There are no oil changes, filters, water/fuel pumps, spark plugs, head gaskets, timing belts/chains, oxygen sensors, or any of the other myriad precision parts that can go wrong. The battery and the motor are both maintenance-free units which last the lifetime of the car.

Some of the mechanical maintenance is carried over from regular cars. There are CV boots and joints, suspension springs, wheel balancing, air conditioning, coolant and so on which require annual inspection and sometimes need attention. Brake fluid and brake pads require servicing, although most long term Leaf owners have found that since they rely on regenerative braking, brake pads have never needed to be changed.

Because there is no waste heat from the motor, the car has a heat-pump which runs off the battery to heat the interior. When it is on, the car will use more more energy, which will reduce the maximum distance you can drive. On the other hand, the heat is available instantly from a cold start. Better still, the car can be set to turn on the heating and/or air conditioning before you leave on your journey. I no longer have to scrape ice from the car in winter, as 15 minutes of pre-heating melts it all away and leaves the interior warm and dry for the trip.

The efficiency of the car is a double edged sword. The car uses noticeably more energy when you drive at high speeds. It also uses a little more energy when it is wet, and cold temperatures temporarily reduce the storage capacity of the battery pack as well as making the air heavier, which requires the car to do more work. Because a regular car wastes so much, these small changes are not noticeable. Overall, they can knock 20% off your range in the winter.

Eventually, the battery will wear out, and its ability to accept a full charge diminishes over time. However, in the past few years, this situation has improved, with drivers reporting a lower than expected drop in battery capacity. As an example, an electric car used by a taxi company in Cornwall, with 100,000 miles on the clock, has seen only a modest drop in the battery’s ability to hold a charge. I would guess that by the time an electric car reaches the point where the battery capacity is too low to be usable, the car’s value will have depreciated almost to nothing anyway.

Charging the car, and range anxiety

Charging in Bangor – BMW i3, Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf. Courtesy @plugincarguy

“Range anxiety” is a term often heard when discussing electric cars. It is an issue, but not as big an issue as some people think.

The current batch of basic electric cars have capacities permitting around 90-110 miles of real-world travel. In my Leaf this comes from a 30kWh battery. 30kWh is about the same amount of energy in three litres of diesel – less than one gallon – so clearly, the car can’t store as much as a typical car with a 50 litre fuel tank, and therefore needs to be refuelled more regularly. The higher end cars, such as the Tesla Model S, can go well over 300 miles on a full charge for those who can afford to spend £90,000 on a car. Renault’s newest 40kWh Zoe can, in theory, do over 200 miles, which I suspect will become the standard minimum range for electric cars as we pass into 2018.

People think that a car that can only travel for 100 miles is a huge problem. The reality is that, almost all of the time, it isn’t. According to the RAC, the average mileage for a car in the UK is just under 8000 miles, or about 30 miles per day. Commuting mileage is said to be anywhere up to 3000 miles per year, which, assuming 240 working days per year, is a range of 12.4 miles per working day.

If you can charge your car at home, you are sorted. All electric cars come with an adapter that can charge the car from flat, using a standard mains plug, within 12-14 hours. Faster options are available; at home I have a 6.6kW charger which will do it in 4 hours.

This solution obviously will not work for people who do not have offstreet parking or who live in apartments. There’s also the need to deal with the outlier cases, such as when you have to do the occasional long journey – for those of us with relatives living far away, for example. For those people, the public charging network becomes a major component of making the car usable.

There are two kinds of public charger. The first operate similarly to home chargers and require four hours to fully charge the car – these are known colloquially as “standard” or “slow” chargers. The second category are “rapid” chargers. These can charge the car to around 80-90% of its capacity within 30 or so minutes. Rapid chargers operate at high power levels – imagine 20 tumble driers all running at once – and need dedicated grid connections and equipment. It is the rapid chargers which are critical to making long journeys possible.

The matter is complicated by the fact that there are two major charging standards for rapid chargers, a VHS vs Betamax situation. The newer standard – called CCS – is a better one, but fewer chargers support it. This isn’t a problem for my Leaf, but it is for BMW i3 or Volkswagen e-Golf drivers whose cars require a CCS charger. Slower chargers, fortunately, are universal.

I will agree with Patrick that there is a degree of anxiety on a longer journey over whether or not the rapid charger I need to use will actually be available. I’ve never had a problem on the Belfast-Dublin route with failures, but since the chargers are free, I have had issues with local people freeloading rather than charging at home. In all cases, I’ve found that a polite chat with the driver usually yields good results and I’m charging within 10 or 15 minutes.

The core problem at the moment is that the Irish government, who operate the all-island network via ESB, do not have a strategy in place for maintaining the charging network, so it tends to get done on an ad-hoc basis, with failed chargers left unrepaired for months on end. There is also a need to upgrade chargers to the CCS standard. Further down the tracks is the need to increase the charging power; as newer EVs come with larger batteries, the chargers will have to increase the power levels to supply enough energy to keep the charge time reasonably short.

The absence of a strategy is contributing to poor uptake of electric cars in Ireland and will ultimately lead to fines from the EU if it does not act to improve things. I’m hopeful that ESB will be allocated powers, and budget, to properly manage the network, which will inevitably lead to a system of usage fees. I think most reasonable people will happily pay a fair fee if, in exchange, they can be sure that they will be able to charge their car when they need to.

This is not to allow our local politicians off the hook – it was their decision to offload the Northern Ireland electric charging infrastructure to ESB in the first place. If there were ever an example of a need for good cross-border co-operation, this is one of them. Enhancing the ability to drive electric on the main Belfast-Dublin corridor is of course important, but so too is the ability to make trips to Derry, Letterkenny and Donegal, as well as along the border regions further to the east.

Would I recommend an electric car ? 

If you live in a two-car household, with one car being kept as a runabout for shopping, school runs or commuting, the decision is more or less a no-brainer. As long as you can charge at home you will never need to rely on the public charge network. Enjoy tax free, cheap fuel and stress free trips.

If you have only one car in your house, you might need a little bit of a sense of adventure. I experience zero problems with my regular commute, shopping trips, or travel around greater Belfast. Trips to, say, Derry or Dublin require more planning, and more time to allow for the possibility that the rapid charger is not available. If you regularly have to commute over 50 miles a day to work and back again, you will need to charge the car, which will make your journey take longer – although you would not necessarily need to charge the car all the way just to get home.

Trips to more remote parts of the country are trickier still. In the north, the most westerly rapid charger is in Laghy near Donegal Town. Care would be required if driving along the coastline; a prolonged stop at a slow charger might be required. Last year, heading to the Summer School in Killough, I found that the Crossgar rapid charger was not working. With the weather being cold and very wet, I just about made it back home again.

Conclusion

The reality of driving an electric car in Northern Ireland is not at all shocking. If you charge at home, it’s quick, convenient, cheap, and you are making a significant contribution to reducing emissions and pollution, and ending our reliance on importing oil. For the time being you can also benefit from free charging on the public charge network; you will find that most of the time, charging is available and, in Belfast at least, the prohibition of standard cars in electric car charging spaces is quite well enforced.

If you are among the minority who regularly need to make long trips or commutes, or are a taxi driver, you might be best advised to wait until either the government has taken action to improve the public charging network, or until a car becomes available that can meet your daily driving requirements without requiring the car to be recharged.

Finally, if you are an elected representative in Northern Ireland – please work with the local and regional governments, as well as the Irish government, to ensure that electric car spaces are enforced; that the electric car infrastructure is properly maintained and repaired; and that chargers are updated as new technology becomes available!