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Day 7: Sustainable transport

We need to rethink the way we move ourselves around. There is a lot happening around ‘active transport’- which is a posh term for walking and cycling – but we also need to see a sea change in what powers our vehicles – petrol and diesel have been the dominant transportation fuels for over a hundred years, but are sooo last century, what we require is a new fuel for the 21st century. Welcome then e-vehicles, your time has come! 

From tiny e-bikes all the way up to hybrid trucks and buses, plug in electric vehicles are coming. After a few false starts the technology is now in place to offer drivers a clean, viable and fun alternative to the internal combustion engine which has dominated the vehicle market for over a century. Now that the major manufacturers are getting involved, spurred along by some upstarts who are really shaking the car industry up, we can expect the quality and range of plug in vehicles to rapidly improve, making them a tempting proposition for the majority of drivers rather than being the preserve of the early adopters. There are many attractions to plug in vehicles: they are exceptionally efficient, have no tailpipe emissions so are very clean, are very quiet, have few moving parts so their reliability is excellent, are cheap to fuel and are great fun to drive with spritely performance from even the most basic plug in vehicle (the days of comparing electric cars to milk carts are long gone).

So, why aren’t they a more common sight on roads? One of the reasons is cost. Plug ins are more expensive than conventional cars and the main reason is the cost of the battery. This is changing rapidly though as the cost of lithium ion batteries is following a trajectory not dissimilar to that of solar photovoltaics over the past 5 years.

What eco actions can we take?

There are many actions we can adopt to reduce our travel carbon footprint, here are a few:

Citizens:  We need to start asking whether car journeys are really necessary – could you hold that meeting on Skype? Could you cycle, walk or take public transport instead? If driving is unavoidable, then what sort of car should you use? If you live in city centres with car sharing schemes why not investigate whether any have plug in vehicles in their fleets. Car sharing schemes are in many ways a better option to car ownership as they lead to less driving and the vehicles are more modern and have lower emissions.

Civil Society:  groups and communities can campaign to get their public buses to be converted to electric vehicles and/or hybrids. Join the campaigns for cleaner air in your area. Campaign for better cycle lanes.

Corporates: businesses of all sizes that operate fleets of vehicles could investigate the possibility of operating plug in vehicles within their fleets. There are financial & environmental benefits to switching to plug in vehicles and in many countries there are grants available to help with the vehicle purchase costs and recharging infrastructure. 

Blog post: Driven to destruction

One of the great ironies of the Paris Climate Change Conference is the carbon footprint left by the 40,000 attendees who have journeyed across the globe to visit the French capital. It’s estimated that 300,000 tonnes of CO2 will be generated by the two week summit, and Barack Obama’s travel arrangements alone will send more carbon dioxide into the air than the combined annual emissions of 31 US homes.

These emissions are the inconvenient side-effect of what is a critical conference, but they’re clearly just a drop in the ocean when you consider the bigger picture for transport. In the UK, cars alone burn around 20 million tonnes of oil every year and produce 70 million tonnes of CO2 (12% of our total emissions) in the process. We need to not only radically alter how we get from A to B, but also encourage people to think twice about the journeys they make.

This requires long term big thinking from government and local authorities on issues like public transport, the movement of goods, lift sharing, town planning and even data and connectivity. But we don’t have to wait for government initiatives to rethink our travel habits – we can make changes right now that will have a big impact on our footprint.

The recent diesel emissions scandal has helped to remind people of the harm that our cars are doing to the environment, and it finally feels like we’ve hit a tipping point when it comes to public attitudes towards electric cars.

There are now 43,000 electric vehicles (or EVs) on British roads, including hybrid cars. That may only be 0.1% of the total, but it’s increased from less than 2,000 just two years ago, and the rapid uptake is showing no signs of slowing down. There are more EVs on the market than ever before as all major manufacturers now have an electric option, from small city cars to sports cars like the BMW i8.

The main barrier to people buying an electric car in the past was the fear around a lack of charging infrastructure and the possibility that you might run out of battery during a long journey, but that’s increasingly unlikely. Around 99 per cent of UK journeys are less than twenty miles and the latest electric cars can travel up to 150 before they need to refuel. The government will install a charging point at our home absolutely free of charge, so you can turn your house into your service station too.

For longer journeys, ecotricity have installed nearly 300 electricity pumps across Britain, what we like to call the Electric Highway. The Electric Highway enables drivers to charge their car up to 80% in just 20 minutes and travel the length and breadth of the country using nothing but renewable electricity. Drivers simply need to pull into a motorway services and plug in. It’s only been up and running for the last three years, but it’s already powering nearly two million miles a month.

We don’t need to wait for the technology to change our driving habits, it’s already here – the electric car revolution has already started.

If we remove petrol and diesel cars from our roads, we’ll feel the benefits both short and long term. Paris had a car free day back in September which led to a dramatic drop in both air and noise pollution as levels of nitrogen dioxide dropped by up to 40% in parts of the city and sound levels dropped by half. If Paris can see that much of a change in only a day, just imagine what could happen over the course of a few years.

If electric cars are embraced fully by 2030, we could have over five million EVs and 11 million hybrids on the road. As a result, we would halve the carbon emissions from passenger cars and vans and save £1.2 billion to the economy in health benefits. It won’t just be at a national level that we’ll see a financial boon – by then, you’ll only spend £254 a year on travel, compared to an average of £1190 for traditional fuel cars in 2014.

A potential issue levelled at plug in vehicles is the impact they could have on electricity grids. There are certainly challenges which need to be overcome. The idea of millions of commuters coming home, plugging in their vehicles and all of these vehicles attempting to simultaneously recharge just as the evening peak is starting is the kind of thing that makes grid controllers wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. But of course this won’t happen in reality, we are gradually moving towards smart grids which means that when the commuters arrive home in the evening they’ll plug in and the grid will decide when it is best to charge the vehicle. This could be when demand is lowest, or supply is cheapest or greenest. The vast majority of those vehicles are going to stay plugged in for the whole night and could be recharged at any time so the load can be spread over the quiet off peak hours.

In fact plug in vehicles have one more trick up their sleeve: being plugged in to the grid means that they can potentially become active participants in a future smart grid. At the moment, grid operators have to ramp up and down fossil fuel plant to balance changes in demand and supply and this has a toll both in terms of cost and emissions. A smart plug in vehicle could offer a similar service by reducing the rate at which it recharges if supply gets tight. If you could remotely dial back the rate at which a million plug in vehicles charge overnight, this would offer the grid manager control of 3GW (gigawatts) of demand, as much as a large nuclear power station. Ultimately it could go even further by having plug in vehicles which are able to store power when there is a surplus and deliver it back to the grid when supplies are tight. The name for this kind of service is ‘Vehicle to Grid’ (V2G), and as more and more variable supplies of renewable electricity are added to electricity grids around the world, V2G services are going to become more and more important.

The technology, finances and infrastructure is already here, so what are you waiting for?

Today’s theme presented by eco action games and our partner ecotricity.

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