The benefits & challenges of zero emission transport systems. Where to next?
In my role as chair of the Irish EV Owners Association, I often get asked to partake in panels, events, webinars and the like. And I tend to enjoy them as they actually sit nicely between the wheelhouses of passion for sustainable transport & selling the value of future growth from my actual job.
One such invite was for an in-person panel discussion last week. Which, thanks to the virtues of having children in creche & winter approaching, I couldn't attend for fear of being patient zero with my newly acquired cold/flu nightmare.
But, I felt it would be prudent to answer the question I was going to get on stage alongside three colleagues in the same EV-advocacy field.
The question to be posed to each panelist in the short 20-30min slot was to talk about one advantage and one challenge posed by zero emission transport systems, and the future-vision direction we're headed.
Given I don't have to cram my thoughts into a few minutes with rebuttals or "ums" & "ahs," I can be a little more deliberate here.
Discussing the benefits of sustainable transport systems is a pretty easy challenge, all said. But I think I raise eyebrows as the chair of an association advocating for the just transition to electric vehicles when I remind folks that electric vehicles themselves are not the answer. Nor should they be.
The enormous benefit of EV technology (in short, batteries on a skateboard with a chasis plonked on top) is that it's far, far more flexible & allows far more design freedom in a car, van, bus, truck or whatever. Batteries don't have to go where engines have done for so long in ICE vehicles. In fact they tend to sit underneath the cabin these days for better weight distribution, meaning a mid-sized family SUV type of car could out-perform most ICE sports cars into a corner!
And so the huge benefit, to my eyes, is that we have an opportunity to really pick & choose what the car, bus, van, truck, etc. actually represents in our lives. We need to pick our vehicle based on our actual needs, not what the market says is great value for money. On a long-enough time horizon, battery capacity will be the only major differenciator for a car outside of aesthetic and operating system stuff. Cars will look/feel more like the decision to buy an iPhone or a Samsung. They both foundationally do the same thing, and cost similar amounts, but the features are what makes a difference.
Cars of all shapes, sizes and value propositions can exist, and be flexible based on what you need them to do. But, this decision-making has to be coupled with the car being a utility that does a job for your family, alongside public (which also needs to be EV) and active transport (namely cycling and walking). If we re-educate ourselves to understand what a vahicle in our driveway is for, then we can really create the 15-minute urban or rural environment we deserve.
The future benefit is that this technology will get better, mature, become cheaper and even more sustainable. At some point we'll no longer need to extract lithium for batteries, for example. We'll simple have enough in the chain to recycle it for new devices/machines. The cars will be more adept at self-driving, which should see us being able to avoid parking anywhere other than home entirely as it drives off after we get to our destination. Ownership will be less likely as we adopt schemes to have access to cars more ("cars as a service"). The list goes on.
The grand vision here falls over immediately when we see where we currently are. In Ireland, the government's mission is to get 1 million EVs on the road. A lofty goal. But translated, they're trying to keep at least 1 million cars on the road instead of balancing that against more sustainable options. We're not educating people on better ways to commute, providing better options for work or school runs, etc. etc. That list goes on.
The other big challenge is the lack of vision, leadership or investment around sustainably running a grid filled with EVs. Every home with an EV, where possible, should be wildly encouraged to become a micro-generator with solar PV and local battery storage. Every windy coast, hill or mountain should have a wind farm. As I write this, 77% of the energy generated in Ireland today (Saturday October 1st) has been through wind. Yet our electricity prices are being dictated by gas supplies.
The future here is really bright, but the lack of leadership around climate action and a shift towards a sustainable "15-minute city/town," something totally within the remit of Ireland given it's size & population density, is going to squander a genuine opportunity to be a leader in Europe.
The other big own-goal here is the infrastructure we provide. In 2022 there are somewhere between 50 and 65 thousand electric vehicles on the road. And the demand outstrips supply by a huge amount. When comparing an EV or ICE car variant, the EV is now cheaper at the till, as well as to run (obviously). We're on the right path, and it's going to grow with huge compounds over the immediate years to come. But that demand will put huge pressure on a draconian, arcaic and under-invested grid network (which relies on old fossil fuels rather than wind or solar) with not enough battery storage as part of the plan. We have good overall national coverage of chargers when you look at a map. But when you peel away one layer of the onion and see what those chargers are capable of, you dispair. At IEVOA, we're calling for a national right to charge, in-line with other EU nations, to force more urgency here. But I remain skeptical as our neoliberal policies rely on private investments, while those private companies wait for government hand-outs to provide said infrastructure. All while ESB Networks drag their heels & remain deeply under-invested in.
On the same note, we're not encouraging leadership around smart system to have V2G/V2L in public service vehicles (imagine dormant An Post or Garda vans contributing to the grid in the evening/overnight).
In conclusion, the future is bright. I believe people will start to think more deeply about transport, power consumption and how they balance their lives with the systems around them. But political willpower will lag behind that. While this is an Irish context, I know this is true elsewhere.