revisited : owning and running an electric car in NI

Some Slugger readers might remember, back in 2016, that I decided to take the plunge and lease an electric car. Recently, more attention has been paid to this topic; BBC NI recently ran a few segments about it, and I noted at the end of one of the leader’s debates prior to the election that the leaders were all asked if they had plans to change to an electric car. Then, this morning, I noticed that the Department for Infrastructure had dusted off their 5-year-old Nissan Leaf to collect the new Minister for the cameras. I thought it might be a good time to talk about my own experience retrospectively, and also give my idea of how I think policy in this area needs to be developed.

I did not renew my Nissan Leaf’s lease when it expired after two years. Following a few longer cross-border trips which ended up taking significantly longer than they needed to, due to the lack of adequate rapid charging facilities, I found myself having difficulty justifying the significantly higher purchase price and the added inconvenience. The absence of enthusiasm emanating from government has not been helpful either.

That does not change my view which is that, ultimately, we need to move to transition all transport to electric power as soon as we can. Within my lifetime, I expect that all cars will be electric, and I think the transition will be substantially complete, certainly for passenger cars and road-based public transport, before the UK’s ban on new petrol and diesel cars comes into effect in 2040.

Why electric ?

The case for electric cars is compelling. Despite disinformation campaigns which surface from time to time, they use significantly less energy to move the same weight the same distance, and they do not pollute from an exhaust. They can be charged anywhere there is a plug, and the energy can come from any source that can be used to generate electricity : wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas as well as coal and oil, which is important when it comes to reducing our energy dependency. They are based on standard, well-understood and commonplace technology, and soon their batteries can be expected to become commodities. There is likely to be a lively market for the re-use of older EV batteries for energy storage in households and businesses. This is important because energy storage is the key to making renewable energy viable and reliable.

But we are not there yet. The cars are still too expensive and charging is still too inconvenient for many people. These are problems that will eventually be solved by the market; but governments need to become more actively involved to get the ball rolling.

We should not forget that electric cars do not solve all problems. While they eliminate tailpipe pollution and help to decrease energy imports, they do not solve traffic congestion or road accidents, and do not encourage people to live more active or healthy lifestyles. Particularly foolish are proposals to allow EVs to use bus lanes or provide free parking; these ideas actively mitigate against efforts to make transportation scale effectively. I’ll address this point in more detail further along.

Driving

An electric car is extremely easy to drive, much easier than a regular car. There is no gearbox, as electric motors deliver power mostly linearly throughout their RPM range (typically via a fixed reduction gear). There is no turbo lag either – full power is immediate, which is great for nipping around town, pulling out of junctions quickly and so on. There are no downsides at all from a driving perspective.

A minor, but really nice, feature of an EV is that you can remotely start the heating or air conditioning without putting the key in the car. This is great for defrosting the windows in winter or clearing condensation, or cooling the car if it has been sitting out in the sun before you start your journey.

Buying

Unfortunately electric cars remain significantly more expensive to buy at the entry level. Looking at the Nissan website, the starting list price for the base model of the Leaf is £27,995 including grants. By comparison, the base model of the Juke, the nearest equivalent petrol car, is £17,995. It’s a similar story over at Hyundai – the i30 or Kona can be had for £17,355 or £17,505 respectively, where the all-electric Ioniq starts at £29,450 including incentive. At Volkswagen, the base Golf S starts at £22,080 whereas the e-Golf lists at £27,575 (if anything, I think this tells a story of how overpriced the standard Golf is!).

Generally, manufacturers equip their base electric vehicles to a higher specification than their base petrol models, so these are not like-for-like comparisons. But it shows that you can expect to spend between £5K-£10K more to go electric.

Running costs

Some advocates argue that the higher purchase price of an electric vehicle is offset by the lower running costs. For most people, this will not be the case.

As a very rough guide, you will save approximately £1,200/year in fuel costs and tax if you buy a base-level EV compared with buying a base-level equivalent petrol car. This assumes that you do around 10,000 miles per year and that you charge the car at home using Economy 7 using a standard three-pin plug.

Since that is a rough figure, there are many caveats which depend on how you drive and what kind of mileage you do. An electric car’s mileage performance drops at higher speeds, such as on the motorway. It also drops in cold weather, for several reasons – the battery performs less efficiently in the cold, and you have to use more energy to maintain a comfortable cabin temperature. On the other hand, when driving about town in clement weather, an EV is extremely efficient.

If you are a longer distance driver, driving a diesel car where you are routinely getting 60mpg – realistic on many modern diesels – the saving of an EV drops significantly to around £700/year. Modern diesels are, of course, a bad choice if you seldom drive distances due to the DPF cleaning cycle.

It works out therefore that motorists who drive petrol cars short distances and diesel cars for longer distances are looking at 7-8 years to break even on the purchase cost. Anyone who buys an EV expecting to save money overall will be waiting for a long time.

The EV tax timebomb

EVs look cheap to run from the above statistics, but this is an anomaly due to the fact that there is no fuel duty or full-rate VAT to pay on electricity.

On a petrol car , you’re paying roughly 9p/mile in taxes. Strip away those taxes, and the gap in running costs between a petrol car and an EV is almost non-existent. If you discount fuel taxes on diesel, diesel  cars are actually cheaper to run than EVs for long-distance drivers.

As the share of the market of EVs rises, tax revenue in VAT, vehicle excise duty and fuel duty will fall. One way or another, the government will eventually have to plug this hole. It is not practically possible to apply this tax during charging, as most charging will be done from home, and may even be performed off grid via solar panels.

A mileage tax is the only mechanism which makes sense, although mechanisms to deal with charging foreign-registered cars would need to be developed. I expect the government will introduce punitive taxes in the future for petrol and diesel cars to ensure there is sufficient incentive to switch away.

I can’t see the government moving on this matter while EVs constitute a very small proportion of cars on the road. But tax-free motoring won’t last long.

Servicing costs

Some EV advocates claim that an electric car does not need to be serviced. This is a matter of interpretation. It is true that electric vehicles are inherently lower-maintenance. An electric motor is a simple machine with much less to go wrong. It does not need oil changes, filters, spark plugs, heaters, injectors and their cleaners, oxygen monitors, timing belts/chains, clutch plates/fluid or any of these other precision components required to make fuel-based engines work. (some electric motors do need fluid changes but only after 100,000 miles).

However, EVs still require regular inspections, mainly for safety reasons. The service schedule on my Leaf still provided for full and intermediate service, and these included brake checks, CV boots/steering rack/etc, suspension checks, bearing checks, dust/pollen filter, air conditioning and so on. Interestingly, due to regenerative braking, brake pads/discs tend to wear much more slowly and in many cases will not need to be replaced during the lifetime of the car.

Nissan currently charge £159 for a basic service on the Leaf vs £209 for their petrol cars. This is not much of a saving, so for now I’m going to argue that there is no difference worth considering here.

Range anxiety

Most of the time, typical EV drivers do not need to worry about range anxiety. This is because the average motorist travels 30 miles a day. If the car is charged every night, it will never run out.

Most car drivers, however, want the ability to travel longer distances when the need arises – a run up the coast, a trip to see relatives or friends living further away, etc. In these cases, you need the ability to charge your car quickly during your journey. This is where you need a reliable network of rapid chargers, which can charge you close to full capacity within 30 minutes or so.

I don’t think people would mind a 30-45 minute wait to charge provided they don’t have to do it frequently during a long journey, since most will be stopping for a break anyway. However, these delays can end up taking a lot longer due to the lack of available chargers. Back when I had my EV, there were holes in the network, which was compounded by the fact that free charging encouraged freeloading and disincentivised private sector operators to establish their own networks. On many occasions the chargers would be out of service, and due to lack of funding it often took many weeks to repair faulty chargers.

Recently, ESB activated fee-paid charging for rapid chargers in the south, which (according to anecdote) has significantly improved charger availability. This has not yet happened in the north, most likely due to the absence of a minister. We’re also lagging behind in terms of maintenance and upgrades to chargers in the north.

What next ?

As I write, electric cars are moving ever-closer to the mainstream. But we’re still some way away from price parity at the lower end of the market. I expect 2020 will be a record year for EV sales, but it will be at least another couple of years before seeing EVs on the road becomes commonplace.

If the UK government wants to accelerate the uptake of EVs it should significantly increase taxes on petrol and diesel cars and use this to fund huge subsidies for EVs. This policy is unlikely to be popular so it depends to a great extent on what kind of political capital it has.

Within our own devolved government, the first priority must be to address charger availability and reliability. The government therefore has to move to make any necessary legal changes to allow fees to be introduced for electric vehicle chargers. It also needs to look at how repairs, upgrades and expansion of the network can be funded, and take a look at the functioning of the market to see what can be done to bring in other private sector operators.

It is probably not sensible or realistic for the devolved government to introduce additional EV subsidies for the general public. I would personally be against electric vehicles being permitted to use bus lanes or to have free parking. On the other hand, providing incentives or match funding to public sector/local government bodies to enable them to electrify their fleet might yield a good return and would help to normalise electric vehicles in the public eye.

Advocates of hydrogen power should be shown the door. Where an electric vehicle charger is a relatively simple machine, equipment to produce and store hydrogen gas is not, which rules out one of the big advantages of EVs, namely the ability to charge overnight on cheaper electricity. The production process wastes a significant quantity of the input energy. The gas cannot be efficiently produced at scale; is a dangerous, highly explosive substance. It creates more problems than it solves, especially for private cars.

I wish our new Minister for Infrastructure well as she takes on responsibility for this matter, as well as a wide range of other, more serious matters. I hope she is successful at making the case for charging infrastructure improvements at the Executive table, especially as this feeds in to local parties’ stated priorities around climate change and pollution. Northern Ireland has been a backwater on pollution and climate change for far too long, and it is high time that we put our minds to addressing this.