Tag: electric vehicles (EVs)

Charge. Recharge. The evolution of batteries

From watches to toothbrushes, mobile phones to cars, batteries are a power source for many of our everyday belongings. And while their beginnings can be traced back to the 19th century, their innovation has transformed industries, technology use and society at large today.

Energy storage systems such as pumped-hydropower have long played an important role in balancing electricity systems, but as the UK and countries around the world seek to decarbonise industries and make greater use of intermittent, renewable sources, there is a need for greater levels of storage.

While pumped-hydro storage requires the right kind of terrain, batteries can theoretically be built wherever there is the space and investment. But what actually is a battery, and how does it work?

Turning chemicals to electrical flow

Batteries are comprised of one or more cells which store chemical energy, and are able to convert that energy into electricity. In most batteries, there are three main components: an anode, cathode and electrolyte.

The anode and cathode are terminals for the flow of energy and are typically made of metal. The electrolyte is a chemical medium that sits between the terminals allowing an electrical charge to pass through. This is often a liquid, but increasingly research points to the potential to use solids and create what are known as solid-state batteries.

How a lithium ion battery works

How a lithium ion battery works

It’s only when a battery is connected to a device that it completes a circuit and chemical reactions take place that allow the flow of electrical energy from the battery to the device. But how much electrical energy a battery can dispense has always been a hurdle to using them as a power source, making rechargeable batteries an important breakthrough.

The same reaction backwards

A key element in battery development was the exploration of rechargeable cells. These have long provided mobility and reliability in small scale outputs, but are now being looked to as a source of large-scale energy storage.

Invented by physician Gaston Planté in 1859, rechargeable batteries are possible because the chemical reactions that take place are reversible. Once the initial stored charge has been depleted via chemical reaction, these reactions occur again, but this time backwards, to store a new charge.

Battery charger with AA rechargeable batteries

Battery charger with AA rechargeable batteries

Using a lead-acid system, Planté’s composition was similar to that found in rechargeable batteries used in cars and motorbikes today, although the characteristics of these cells, such as their heavy weight, meant they were not convenient for many other uses.

As a result, a journey of continuous research and optimisation to decrease the size and weight of rechargeable batteries began. This includes investigation into the alternative chemical compositions found in batteries today – nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion to name two.

Recharging in a low-carbon energy system

Just as we have seen the size and capacity of batteries bettered throughout history, the application and optimisation of modern-day lithium-ion cells looks to continue too, powering the world’s move towards a low carbon, renewable energy future.

From electric vehicle batteries with a million mile lifespan to a 200 megawatt battery farm in South Africa, lithium-ion allows reasonably large-scale energy storage. It can also play a key role in power grid stabilisation over short durations of time such as a few hours.

Tesla gigafactory

Tesla gigafactory

For the UK to run on 100% renewable electricity sources, batteries would be imperative in complimenting other flexible renewables, such as biomass and hydropower. As a support technology, batteries can help ensure a continuous supply of electricity to homes and cities, even when cloud cover and low wind prevents other sources generating.

Conversely, charging and recharging batteries can also be used to absorb and store electricity when there is more sun and wind generation than needed, avoiding surges in electric current or wasted generation.

Changing charging

Woman charging smartphone using wireless charging pad

Alongside the advancements of battery capacity and composition, the way we use them to charge is also changing. Just as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi avoid the tethering required of wired connections, wireless charging can increase mobility and remove physical limitations.

Small-scale wireless charging is in use today. Many mobile phones, toothbrushes, smartwatches and earbuds now have wireless charging pads. These use near-field charging, meaning the device must be in close proximity to the charger to receive power.

However, efficient far-field charging is in development, with companies like Energous and Ossia developing over-the-air charging solutions for wearable tech, medical products, smart homes, and industrial equipment. This would mean devices could be powered and charged from many metres away.

The implications of this are vast, for example your devices could be charged just by entering your home or office. There could be less need for invasive surgery to change the batteries for pacemakers, neurotransmitters and other implanted medical equipment.

This type of technology could also provide passive charging for electric vehicles. The UK Department for Transport has announced a trial in Nottingham, where charging plates will be placed on parts of the town’s roads allowing electric taxis to charge while waiting briefly to pick up passengers. As charging technology and speed continues to increase, this might mean vehicles could charge wirelessly not only while parked, but when stopped at traffic lights.

3d rendered illustration of an elderly man with a pace maker

As the world shifts away from fossil fuels to renewable sources, batteries, with continued improvement in performance and capacity, will be crucial in supporting our connected lives, transport systems and electrical grids.

How to make batteries more sustainable

batteries in a recycling bucket

Batteries can be found everywhere: in our houses, in our cars and vans and even in the tech we wear. More than just being pervasive, battery technology has enabled a huge amount of technological breakthroughs – from the increasing distances electric vehicles can travel between charges, to being able to store renewable electricity for when it’s needed.

These two developments in particular – emission-free electric transport and grid-scale batteries that can power homes, businesses and cities even when energy sources are not generating – could be two key aspects in the transition to a zero carbon energy future. However, questions remain around batteries’ environmental impact.

What’s in our batteries?

The batteries we use every day are typically made from a mix of metals and chemicals such as lead and acid (as found in petrol and diesel-engine cars), or zinc, carbon, nickel and cadmium, which make up some of the batteries found in the home.

Then there’s lithium-ion. The go-to material mix for the rechargeable batteries powering mobile phones, laptops and, more recently, a high proportion of electric vehicles around the world.

The surge in the production of lithium-ion batteries over the last decade has led to an 85% price reduction, which in turn, has encouraged the use of these reliable batteries in electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage solutions. While this is a positive step in the development of rechargeable goods, it raises issues in the handling of spent batteries.

Each year around 600 million batteries are thrown away in the UK alone – even rechargeable batteries have a shelf-life. While recycling allows the safe extraction of raw materials for use in other industries and products, the majority of discarded batteries are left to rot in landfill sites. This can lead to their chemical contents leaking into the ground causing soil and water pollution.

Batteries left in soil

For batteries of any size to play a role in a sustainable future, an overhaul is needed in preventing harmful levels of battery waste. 

The battery problem

Although the number of batteries that are recycled has increased, currently the EU puts the recycling efficiency target for a lithium battery at only 50% of the total weight of the battery.

Connecting positive and negative terminals on a rechargeable lithium mobile battery

Standard recycling methods achieve this by separating and processing the plastics and wiring that make up the bulk of the battery pack, then smelting and extracting the copper, cobalt and nickel found within the cell, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Crucially, these recycling practices do not typically recover the aluminium, lithium or any of the organic compounds within the battery, meaning that only around 32% of the battery’s materials can be reused. A lack of recycling facilities in the UK means spent batteries have traditionally been exported overseas for treatment, upping emissions even further.

It is not only spent batteries that cause a problem, the creation of them can be harmful too. For example, lithium mining can pose health hazards to miners and damage local communities and their environments.

In one area of Chile, 65% of available water is used in the production of lithium for batteries, meaning water for other uses, such as maintaining crops, must be driven in from somewhere else, impacting farmers greatly. There are also risks around contaminated water leaking into livestock and human water supplies, as well as causing soil damage and air pollution.

As a result, teams across the globe are working to make the production and recycling of batteries more efficient and eco-friendly.

Switching materials

Researchers based at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the National Institute of Energy in Slovenia, are developing an aluminium-ion battery. This type of battery offers a promising alternative to lithium-ion due to the abundance of aluminium in the Earth’s crust and its ability, in principle, to carry charges better than lithium.

Disassembling the battery from an electric vehicle (EV)

The reduction in material and environmental costs that come with using aluminium over lithium might mean batteries made with it could offer more affordable, large-scale storage for renewable installations.

While more research is still needed to reduce the size and control the temperature of aluminium batteries, researchers believe they will soon enter commercial production and eventually could replace their lithium-ion predecessors.

Elsewhere, IBM Research’s Battery Lab is developing a sustainable battery solution made predominantly of materials extracted from seawater, a composition that would avoid the concerns associated with the production of lithium-ion cells.

While the exact combination of materials in not public, Battery Lab claims the new concept has outperformed its lithium-ion counterpart in energy density, efficiency, production costs and charging time. 

Making good of the old

Along with advancements in battery development, new recycling methods are also reducing the environmental impact of batteries.

German company, Duesenfeld, is innovating the recycling of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles through an innovative new process.

Batteries are first discharged and disassembled into their constituent parts. The metals are extracted with a water-based solution, the liquid chemicals evaporated and condensed, and the dry materials crushed and separated, ready for reuse. Importantly, Duesenfeld’s method avoids incineration, reducing the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery recycling by 40% and enabling over 90% of the batteries’ materials to be salvaged and reused in new batteries.

Fortum, a Finnish energy company, is exploring a similar process, with the potential to recycle more than 80% of battery materials, including cobalt, manganese and nickel.

This year Fortum signed a deal with German chemical company BASF and Russian mining and smelting firm Nornickel to develop a renewable-powered, electric vehicle battery recycling cluster in Finland. The aim is to create a ‘closed-loop’ battery production and recycling system, meaning materials from recycled batteries would be used to make new batteries.

While it is clear there is a long way to go in reducing the environmental impact of battery production and recycling, continued development of both batteries and technology can pave a path for a cleaner, safer, battery-powered, zero carbon future.

Electric vehicle battery pack

EV fast facts from Electric Insights:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs) on roads in Great Britain – including EV vans – emit on average just one quarter the carbon dioxide (CO2) of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles
  • If the carbon emitted in making their battery is included, this rises to only half the CO2 of a conventional vehicle
  • EVs bought last year could be emitting just a tenth that of a petrol car in four years’ time, as the electricity system continues to decarbonise

Is Formula One on the road to a big clean-up?

London E-Prix is set for July 2021 Credit: Courtesy of Formula E

On the eve of the new F1 season, the motor sport faces an existential dilemma. While the Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted huge uncertainty throughout 2020, environmental concerns continue to question its long-term viability.

The Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne has long been the curtain-raiser to eight months of gas-guzzling, decibel-deafening action on racetracks across the globe, contributing to a carbon footprint of 256,551 tonnes. Due to the season being delayed, the first race will now take place in Austria. But the focus on Australia has been sharpened by the New Year bushfires – visible evidence, say some scientists and environmentalists, of the climate crisis.  This adds fuel to the fiery debate on Formula One’s perceived failure to take its environmental responsibilities seriously.

Koala bear on eucalyptus branch escaping from Australian bushfires in 2019 and 2020.

Significantly, it is not the cars doing 70 laps that generate most of F1’s emissions but the thousands of air miles covered by drivers, their teams, the media and spectators in getting to each race weekend:

Activity% of carbon footprint
🚚 Logistics (road, air and sea freight)45%
🛩 Personnel travel27.7%
🏭 Factories and facilities19.3%
🎤 Events7.3%
🏎 Total F1 car emissions including all race and test mileage0.7%

Carbon footprint of F1 in 2018, not including fans’ transport to races

But is a genuine shift in attitudes about to descend on the circuits of Monaco, Silverstone and Interlagos? Firstly, a raft of countries have announced plans to phase out petrol and diesel-powered engines between 2030 and 2050. This could force the hand of motorsport bosses who have long been accused of talking a good game but failing to act.

The sport recently announced a pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030 and in pursuit of this goal, it is looking to introduce two-stroke engines that run on synthetic fuel by the mid-2020s while current F1 hybrid engines will be replaced by a new specification of power unit from 2025 or 2026.

Max Verstappen, Formula One driver

Max Verstappen, Formula One driver

Currently, under Article 19.4.4 of the FIA’s 2019 technical regulation for F1 a minimum of 5.75% of the fuel must comprise bio‐components. The sport wants to reach 100%, aiming for 10% in 2021 and a gradual subsequent increase.

Such developments could potentially seize upon the opportunities offered by companies pioneering the use of carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS), such as Drax.

One of several ideas discussed to make the sport more sustainable has been capturing carbon that is then mixed with hydrogen from water to form liquid fuel. Such technology is in development and Drax is researching how carbon dioxide (CO2) can be used to produce fuels. Its innovation engineers recently met with Velocys, the fuels technology company, which plans to produce carbon negative fuels in the Humber.

Could F1 go electric?

While greener fuels are the most obvious way forward, there have been calls for alternative forms of energy to be used to power F1 cars. A hydrogen solution could be developed quickly but it would significantly increase the bulkiness and weight of cars. But what about electric?

Formula One race car

“Electric power is attractive, but it’s currently still quite difficult to scale that up,” Pat Symonds, Chief Technical Officer at Formula One, said in an interview. “With any of the technologies on the horizon at the moment an electric truck or an electric aircraft is not a particularly feasible product. So, there is still a case for having liquid hydrocarbon fuels in trucks and in aircraft. However, what we cannot do is carry on digging those out of the ground, we’re going to have to somehow synthesise them and that’s what we want Formula 1 to explore and hopefully to lead.”

Formula E set to challenge F1 dominance

Another driver of change looming larger in Formula One’s rear-view mirror is Formula E. While this fledgling sport’s claim to quieter cars may not appeal to the most hardened of petrol-head F1 fans, its credible narrative of boosting sustainability in each of the 12 cities that host its races is always a potential attraction to new generations of increasingly climate conscious young fans.

Take Formula E’s opening race in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the country’s most polluted city. The sport is a beneficiary of the kingdom’s aim to reduce its reliance oil and in the last six years, the Middle Eastern country has invested over $350 billion in renewable energy projects (mainly solar and wind).

Saudi formula e grand prix Credit: Courtesy of Formula E

Saudi Arabia Formula E grand prix. Credit: Courtesy of Formula E

As with all electric cars, there are challenges. Excess heat produced by electric motors is offset by reducing the performance of the car when it is too hot. A series of cooling systems using radiators and fluid in closed loops regulate temperatures to a satisfactory level.

Appealing to fans is critical for the sport’s prosperity. Sustainability credentials are a key strand but Formula E is going beyond that and looking to optimise raceday experience through features such as FanBoost. This is an online voting system where the three drivers voted as fans’ favourites get a five second power boost of 100kj which can provide serious assistance when a car overtakes.

Maybe this is just one innovation that F1 could learn from its much younger counterpart? Perhaps there is also a case for taking the best of what both have to offer – the cities, the cars and the technology – and merging into a single championship. Whatever lies ahead in the future, Formula One is aware of the need to change. It must do if it is to survive.

14 moments that electrified history

Electricity is such a universal and accepted part of our lives it’s become something we take for granted. Rarely do we stop to consider the path it took to become ubiquitous, and yet through the course of its history there have been several eureka moments and breakthrough inventions that have shaped our modern lives. Here are some of the defining moments in the development of electricity and power.

2750 BC – Electricity first recorded in the form of electric fish

Ancient Egyptians referred to electric catfish as the ‘thunderers of the Nile’, and were fascinated by these creatures. It led to a near millennia of wonder and intrigue, including conducting and documenting crude experiments, such as touching the fish with an iron rod to cause electric shocks.

500 BC – The discovery of static electricity

Around 500 BC Thales of Miletus discovered that static electricity could be made by rubbing lightweight objects such as fur or feathers on amber. This static effect remained unknown for almost 2,000 years until around 1600 AD, when William Gilbert discovered static electricity in earnest.

1600 AD – The origins of the word ‘electricity’

The Latin word ‘electricus’, which translates to ‘of amber’ was used by the English physician, William Gilbert to describe the force exerted when items are rubbed together. A few years later, English scientist Thomas Browne translated this into ‘electricity’ in his written investigations in the field.

1751 – Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’

This book of Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries made about the behaviour of electricity was published in 1751. The publication and translation of American founding father, scientist and inventor’s letters would provide the basis for all further electricity experimentation. It also introduced a host of new terms to the field including positive, negative, charge, battery and electric shock.

1765 – James Watt transforms the Industrial Revolution

Watt studies Newcomen’s engine

James Watt transformed the Industrial Revolution with the invention of a modified Newcome engine, now known as the Watt steam engine. Machines no longer had to rely on the sometimes-temperamental wind, water or manpower – instead steam from boiling water could drive the pistons back and forth. Although Watt’s engine didn’t generate electricity, it created a foundation that would eventually lead to the steam turbine – still the basis of much of the globe’s electricity generation today.

James Watt’s steam engine

Alessandro Volta

1800 – Volta’s first true battery

Documented records of battery-like objects date back to 250 BC, but the first true battery was invented by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta in 1800. Volta realised that a current was created when zinc and silver were immersed in an electrolyte – the principal on which chemical batteries are still based today.

1800s – The first electrical cars

Breakthroughs in electric motors and batteries in the early 1800s led to experimentation with electrically powered vehicles. The British inventor Robert Anderson is often credited with developing the first crude electric carriage at the beginning of the 19th century, but it would not be until 1890 that American chemist William Morrison would invent the first practical electric car (though it closer resembled a motorised wagon), boasting a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

Michael Faraday

1831 – Michael Faraday’s electric dynamo

Faraday’s invention of the electric dynamo power generator set the precedent for electricity generation for centuries to come. His invention converted motive (or mechanical) power – such as steam, gas, water and wind turbines – into electromagnetic power at a low voltage. Although rudimentary, it was a breakthrough in generating consistent, continuous electricity, and opened the door for the likes of Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan, whose subsequent discoveries would make large-scale electricity generation feasible.

1879 – Lighting becomes practical and inexpensive

Thomas Edison patented the first practical and accessible incandescent light bulb, using a carbonised bamboo filament which could burn for more than 1,200 hours. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent lightbulb on 31st December 1879 where he stated that, “electricity would be so cheap that only the rich would burn candles.” Although he was not the only inventor to experiment with incandescent light, his was the most enduring and practical. He would soon go on to develop not only the bulb, but an entire electrical lighting system.

Holborn Viaduct power station via Wikimedia

1882 – The world’s first public power station opens

Holborn Viaduct power station, also known as the Edison Electric Light Station, burnt coal to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. The power was used for Holborn’s newly electrified streetlighting, an idea which would quickly spread around London.

1880s – Tesla and Edison’s current war

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison waged what came to be known as the current war in 1880s America. Tesla was determined to prove that alternating current (AC) – as is generated at power stations – was safe for domestic use, going against the Edison Group’s opinion that a direct current (DC) – as delivered from a battery – was safer and more reliable.

Inside an Edison power station in New York

The conflict led to years of risky demonstrations and experiments, including one where Tesla electrocuted himself in front of an audience to prove he would not be harmed. The war continued as they fought over the future of electric power generation until eventually AC won.

Nikola Tesla

1901 – Great Britain’s first industrial power station opens

Before Charles Mertz and William McLellan of Merz & McLellan built the Neptune Bank Power Station in Tyneside in 1901, individual factories were powered by private generators. By contrast, the Neptune Bank Power Station could supply reliable, cheap power to multiple factories that were connected through high-voltage transmission lines. This was the beginning of Britain’s national grid system.

1990s – The first mass market electrical vehicle (EV)

Concepts for electric cars had been around for a century, however, the General Motors EV1 was the first model to be mass produced by a major car brand – made possible with the breakthrough invention of the rechargeable battery. However, this EV1 model could not be purchased, only directly leased on a monthly contract. Because of this, its expensive build, and relatively small customer following, the model only lasted six years before General Motors crushed the majority of their cars.

2018 – Renewable generation accounts for a third of global power capacity

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 2018 annual statistics revealed that renewable energy accounted for a third of global power capacity in 2018. Globally, total renewable electricity generation capacity reached 2,351 GW at the end of 2018, with hydropower accounting for almost half of that total, while wind and solar energy accounted for most of the remainder.

The 182-year history of electric vehicles

If the rapid rise of electric vehicles (EVs) over the last decade tells us anything it’s this: the future of transport is electric. But while EVs may be the fast-growing future of mobility, their beginnings stretch right back to the days of the first automobiles.

Today we associate EVs with hallmark tech innovators like Elon Musk and his Teslas, but the original electric vehicle had a much more humble beginning – in a 19th century workshop in Scotland, owned by a chemist named Robert Davidson.

Realising the potential of electric transport

'Barking up the wrong (electric motor) tree' by B. Bowers, Proceedings of the IEEE 2004

‘Barking up the wrong (electric motor) tree’ by B. Bowers, Proceedings of the IEEE 2004

Using electricity to power transport has long made sense as a means of moving around quickly and efficiently. Robert Davidson of Aberdeen understood this as early as 1837, when he created his first electric motor – powered by zinc-acid batteries.

While Davidson was a chemist, he had a fascination with tinkering and engineering. Two years after creating his first motor, he invited visitors to his ‘Electromagnetic Exhibition’ where they could see a fully visualised electric model train capable of carrying two people at a time. He would go on to develop a prototype dubbed the ‘Galvani’, which he tested on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway in 1842, reaching a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour.

Davidson overcame the hurdle of finding a battery strong enough to power a full-sized train by using liquid chemical batteries rather than solid ones. However, when they ran flat, the chemicals had to be completely replaced. There was a further spanner in the works when railway workers destroyed his locomotive fearing the move toward electric vehicles would put them out of a job.

It wasn’t until 1884 that the first production-standard electric car capable of being reproduced and sold to the public was unveiled. The man behind this was Thomas Parker, who was also responsible for electrifying the London Underground.

His car was born out of a desire to minimise smoke and pollution in London, a purpose which still rings true over 135 years later. More practical uses for these vehicles sprung from Parker’s initial foray, with electric wagons being instituted in mines so their motors wouldn’t pollute the air.

The Parker Electric, 1890, invented by Thomas Parker

The Parker Electric, 1890, invented by Thomas Parker

The Golden Age

Mercedes-Electrique advertisement from 1907 © Daimler AG.

Mercedes-Electrique advertisement from 1907 © Daimler AG.

EVs came into their own in the early 1900s, when popularity in Europe and America surged. Unlike gasoline (at the time, petrol was the primary fuel source) EVs did not produce a strong stifling smell, nor did they require gear changes or manual effort to start them, such as using a hand crank.

It was during this period that many well-known car manufacturing names began experimenting with electricity. Ferdinand Porsche – founder of the eponymous sports car –produced an electric vehicle called ‘P1’ in 1898, before creating the world’s first hybrid offering, which was powered by both electricity and a combustion engine. Mercedes-Benz also offered up an electric model called the Mercedes Mixte, in 1906. This car was adopted as a taxi in cities and was even developed into a race car in 1907.

No longer seen as a threat to the existing coal-powered transport, the EVs of the time were limited by the charge in their batteries, but experienced a vogue as ‘city cars’ for the rich who wanted to travel short distances in style. Sales peaked in the early 1900s, when roughly one-third of all cars on US roads were electric.

But EVs first Golden Age came to an abrupt end in the 1920s with the arrival of the man whose name would become synonymous with car manufacturing the world over: Henry Ford.

The rise of petrol

When Ford’s Model T parked on the scene, it brought with it affordable, mass produced petrol-powered transport – EV popularity quickly began its descent. Their limited battery capacities had become a downside as road networks expanded, and the discovery of more petroleum deposits meant that gasoline was more readily available and cheaper than recharging batteries.

Electric milk float in Barnet, London, 1970

One of the only EVs that survived the next few decades was the quintessentially British milk float, which made up the majority of global EVs for most of the 20th century. Away from milk rounds and golf carts, the entire electric automobile industry went silent and the technology stagnated – it looked like gasoline was here to stay.

That was, until a very special electric car took a spin in outer space.

The moon is the limit

In the summer of 1971, the world was glued to TV sets as the Apollo 15 mission to the moon unfolded, featuring a special guest – the new Lunar Roving Vehicle, which ran on battery power. There are currently three rovers parked on the moon, and their continued evolution helped renew interest in electric powered vehicles throughout the 1960s and 70s. It led to a few new battery-powered concept cars appearing, manufactured by General Motors.

Apollo programme lunar rover

Apollo programme lunar rover

Now powered by lithium or nickel-cadmium batteries, these cars provided a viable option for those concerned about the economic fluctuations of the oil and gas industries, with electricity not as exposed to market changes.

The pace of EV innovation picked up after the development of the lithium-ion battery, which significantly extended life and power output, opening the potential for electric vehicles to become more than just short distance city cars.

These cars weren’t produced en masse until the 2000s, after more than three decades of the global environmental movement and its influence over public policy.

As the technology caught up with an ambition to find a practical alternative to fossil fuel powered transport, the EV entered its second golden age.

Tesla driving towards onshore wind farm

Tesla driving towards onshore wind farm

Where are we now?

Today there are over 273,000 electric cars on Britain’s roads, but this is set to grow quickly and significantly. By 2025 it’s estimated there will be 1 million EVs on UK roads – by 2040 there could be as many as 11 million.

Most mainstream car producers are now racing to take the lead in the EV market, from the headline grabbing antics of Tesla to the petrol-powered stalwarts of Volkswagen, Nissan and even Ford. And it’s not just the personal vehicle industry where electricity is racing ahead as a fuel source. Everything from inner-city scooters to the rapidly-evolving aviation industry are being electrified – the first electric passenger jet could be ready for take-off as soon as 2027.

Powering the way that we travel has become one of the most important conversations around the future of transport – and taking a look into the past suggests that this time electric vehicles are here to stay.

Smart ways to charge EVs

Electric car

The future of electric cars and electric vans holds great potential – not just for the transport industry’s overall carbon footprint, but for the populations of heavily congested, polluted cities and even individual drivers looking for more efficient fuel costs.

That future is approaching fast. By 2040 or even as soon as 2035 no new cars or vans sold in the UK can be solely powered by diesel or petrol. While this is a positive step, it brings with it a shift in the way drivers will need to manage the way they plan journeys and, more importantly, refuel.

Dark Blue Electric Sports Car Driving

For years drivers have relied on a quick and plentiful supply of fuel at petrol stations. But an EV doesn’t charge as quickly as a conventional car, nor are fast charging points widespread – at least not right now.

The change will be considerable, but it won’t necessarily take shape in a single form. Here we look at four things that will become increasingly influential in how drivers recharge their EVs over the coming years.

  1. Smart charging and time-of-use tariffs

Electricity costs more to produce and supply at certain times of the day. This wholesale price depends on the demand for power, weather conditions and the costs of different generation technologies and fuels.

For example, electricity is often more expensive in the evenings when people are coming home from work and turning on lights, TVs, ovens and plugging in devices. Just a few hours later it rapidly drops in price as homes and offices turn off lights and appliances. But the power system is changing.

The price of electricity is increasingly driven by less predictable factors such as the weather. On windy and sunny days, wind and solar generation can drive down the cost of producing power. On calm and cloudy days, the costs of electricity can increase.

While this, in theory, makes it sensible to wait for a cheap period of time to plug in and charge an electric vehicle (EV), in practice people are unlikely to spend the time sit refreshing websites which display the price of electricity in real time to get the best value. Instead, the use of ‘smart charging technology’ can play a big role to capitalise on fluctuations in prices. Electric charge in a village house. Outside the city the countryside.

Smart charging technology will be able to monitor things like electricity prices and even electricity usage across an entire site (for example across a business where many devices are using electricity) and automate the charging process to make use of the best prices and limit overall electricity use.

Rather than needing someone to recharge EVs at one o’clock in the morning, this means people or businesses can plug in at times convenient to them and set their vehicles to charge at the cheapest times and have an appropriate amount of charge to carry out tasks when they need to.

“By shifting power usage into cheaper periods you’re saving money and you can be more sympathetic to supply and demand limits on a company,” explains Adam Hall, who leads Drax’s EV proposition. “If I know my battery will be fully charged by nine in the morning, do I care if it charges immediately or delays it and saves me a few pounds?” For business fleet owners who manage large numbers of electric vehicles the difference this can make is even larger, he adds.

  1. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology

Each EV has a battery in it that powers the vehicle’s motor. But what if the electricity stored in that battery could also be harnessed to deliver electricity back to grid? And what if that concept could be used to collect a small portion of power from every idle EV in the country and use it to plug gaps in the electricity system?

“There are over 30 million cars on UK roads. National Grid predicts by 2050, 99% of those vehicles will be powered by electricity,” explains Hall. “The majority of cars remain idle for 95% of any day. That’s a huge amount of storage potential that could be used to balance the grid at key times. It’s a battery network that assets around the country will be able to use.”

This concept is what’s called vehicle to grid technology  (V2G), and while it holds great potential, it’s still some way from becoming a mainstream source of reserve power. Right now the technology is costly and limited – only ‘CHAdeMO’ charging systems, as found on Japanese models, actually support bi-directional charging. Nevertheless, Hall remains optimistic of its future role in the energy system, particularly as this technology will be hugely important in managing future grid constraints

“The cost of bi-directional hardware is coming down all the time,” he says. “At the moment there aren’t enough vehicles, we don’t have the scale to do it, but I fully believe it will change quite dramatically.”

For domestic users the benefit will be less immediate than it will be for entire countries. For business fleet managers, allowing the grid to take some power from their idle vehicles could lead to financial compensation or other advantages for offering grid support.

  1. The out of sight, out of mind approach: third party management schemes

More suited for businesses managing whole fleets of vehicles, employing a third party to manage the charging of vehicles allows for the delegation of a potentially costly and time-consuming task.

Adam Hall, Drax EV proposition lead, with Drax’s electric vehicle fleet service.

“Effectively the customer knows they’ll get the vehicles with the amount of charge they want when they need it,” says Hall. “That might be for the cheapest price or as fast as possible. It means the customer doesn’t have to think, they just get their charged vehicle in the optimum way for their needs.”

Third party providers could also open up new charging businesses models, such as flat monthly rates for unlimited vehicle charging or all-renewable services. By taking the technical aspects of running a fleet out of businesses hands, third parties could even serve to lower the barrier to EV adoption.

  1. Mandatory managed charging

It’s difficult to accurately know how much demand electric vehicles will place on the electricity system– some estimates see demand growing in Great Britain as much as 22% by 2050 as a result of EVs.

While the constant development of battery and charging technology will likely mean this prediction will come down, there are some theories as to how the country will need to deal with this rapid growth. One of these is to actually turn down the electricity surging through charging points at certain points to prevent widespread blackouts.

“The idea is there to protect the grid,” explains Hall. “When local distribution networks have a lot of demand they may need to turn charge points down.” He adds there will likely be exemptions for emergency services, however.

Hall is sceptical mandatory managed charging would ever really come into play, for the damage it would do to consumer attitudes to EVs. The idea also taps into wider scaremongering around EVs and quite how much they will push up electricity demand.

Instead what will really need to shift for a future of efficiently charged vehicles is a mindset shift. “There’s a psychological element to it,” he suggests. “Everyone goes through some range anxiety at first but soon realises the technology is sound.”

As battery technology continues to improve, vehicles evolve to go further on a single charge, and networks of super-fast charge points expand, transitioning to electric vehicles will become easier and more economical for businesses than continuing to depend on fossil fuel.

“I personally believe once electric vehicles are doing 300 miles on a single charge, the requirement for on-route charging will be pretty low,” says Hall. “Not many people drive 300 miles, need to recharge at a service station and then drive anther 300 in one fell swoop. It’s much more important to have good charging installations at work and at home.”

There are many ways in which EVs will change the way the world drives, from how we charge them to how and where we travel. We can be certain this will mean a shift in mindsets and our approach to transport. What remains uncertain is just how quickly and widespread that shift will be.

How will 5G revolutionise the world of energy and communications?

Smart cellular network antenna base station on the telecommunication mast on the roof of a building.

What should be made of the 5G gap? It’s the difference between what some commentators are expecting to happen thanks to this new technology and what others perhaps more realistically believe is possible in the near future.

What we call 5G is the fifth generation of mobile communications, (following 4G, 3G, etc.). It promises vastly increased data download and upload speeds, much improved coverage, along with better connectivity. This will bring with it lower latency – potentially as low as one millisecond, a 90 per cent reduction on the equivalent time for 4G – and great news for traders and gamers, along with lower unit costs.

Trading desk at Haven Power, Ipswich

The latest estimates predict that 5G will have an economic impact of $12 trillion by 2035 as mobile technology changes away from connecting people to other people and information, and towards connecting us to everything.

Some experts believe the effects of 5G will be enormous and almost instantaneous, transforming the way we live. It will have a huge effect on the internet of things, for instance, making it possible for us to live in a more instant, much more connected world with more interactions with ‘smart objects’ every day. Driverless cars that ‘talk’ to the road and virtual and augmented reality to help us as we go could become part of our everyday lives.

Others see 5G as a revolution that will begin almost immediately, but which could take many years to materialise. The principal reason for this is the sheer level of investment required.

The frequencies being used to carry the signal from the proposed 5G devices can provide an enormous amount of bandwidth, and carry unimaginable amounts of data at incredible speeds. But they cannot carry it very far. And the volume of devices connected to this network will be enormous. The BBC estimates that between 50 and 100 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020 – more than 12 for every single person on Earth.

So in order to support the huge increase in connectivity that is anticipated a reality, there will be a need for a comparably large increase in the number of base stations – with as many as 500,000 more estimated to be needed in the UK alone. That’s around three times as many base stations as required for 4G.

To carry the amount of data anticipated without catastrophic losses in signal quality will require the stations to be no more than 500m apart. While that may be technically possible in cities, it will only happen as a result of huge amounts of investment. And what will happen in the countryside, with its lower population density? It seems doubtful in the extreme that any corporation will regard it as a potentially profitable business decision to build a network of base stations half a kilometre apart in areas where few of their customers live. And that’s without taking into account the town and country planning system or the views of residents, who may not welcome new base stations near their homes.

Until this year, the only two workable examples of functional 5G networks are one built by Samsung in Seoul, South Korea, and another by Huawei in Moscow in advance of the 2020 Football World Cup. Although the first UK mobile networks have now begun to offer the new communications standard, 5G is still clearly a long way from being able to deliver on its potential.

What will 5G mean for the world of energy?

A report from Accenture contains a number of predictions about how 5G may change the energy world by helping to increase energy efficiency overall and accelerating the development of the Smart Grid.

  1. 5G uses less power than previous generations of wireless technology

This means that less energy will be used for each individual connection, which will take less time to complete than with 4G devices, thereby saving energy and ultimately money too. It is important to remember that even though such savings will be significant, they will need to be offset against the huge global increase in communications through 5G-connected devices.

  1. Accelerating the Smart Grid to improve forecasting

5G has the potential to help us manage energy generation and transmission more efficiently, and therefore more cost-effectively.

The report’s authors anticipate that “By allowing many unconnected energy-consuming devices to be integrated into the grid through low-cost 5G connections, 5G enables these devices to be more accurately monitored to support better forecasting of energy needs.

  1. Improve demand side management and reduce costs

 “By connecting these energy-consuming devices using a smart grid, demand-side management will be further enhanced to support load balancing, helping reduce electricity peaks and ultimately energy costs.”

  1. Manage energy infrastructure more efficiently and reduce downtime

By sharing data about energy use through 5G connections, the new technology can help ensure that spending on energy infrastructure is managed more efficiently, based on data, in order to reduce the amount of downtime.

And in the event of any failure, smart grid technology connected by 5G will be able to provide an instant diagnosis – right to the level of which pylon or transmitter is the cause of an outage – making it easier to remedy the situation and get the grid up and running again.

5G could even help turn street lighting off at times when there are no pedestrians or vehicles in the area, again reducing energy use, carbon emissions, and costs. Accenture estimate that in the US alone, this technology has the potential to save as much as $1 billion every year.

More data, more power

Although 5G devices themselves may demand less power than the telecoms technology it they will eventually replace, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

More connected devices with more data flowing between them relies on more data centres. This has led some data centres to sign Power Purchase Agreements to both reduce the cost of their insatiable desire for electricity and also ensure its provenance.

Data centre

As well as data centres, the more numerous base stations needed for 5G will consume a lot of power. One global mobile network provider says just to operate its existing base stations leads to a £650m electricity bill annually, accounting for 65% of its overall power consumption.

Base station tower

Contrary to the findings of the Accenture report, a recent estimate has put the power requirement of an individual 5G base station at three times that of a 4G. Keeping in mind that three of these are needed for every existing base station, the analysis by Zhengmao Li of China Mobile, suggests a nine-fold increase in electricity consumption just for that key part of a 5G network.

With the Great Britain power system decarbonising at a rapid pace, the additional power required to electrify the economy with new technologies shouldn’t have a negative environmental impact – at least when it comes to energy generation.

However, as we use ever-more powerful and numerous devices, we need to ensure our power system has the flexibility to deliver electricity whatever the weather conditions. This means a smarter grid with more backup power in the form of spinning turbines and storage.

How clean is my electric car?

Birmingham UK Spaghetti Junction aerial with city centre background

Electric vehicles are fast becoming mainstream. There are now well over 200,000 on Britain’s roads, and this number is growing by 30% per year. 1 in 40 cars sold in Britain is now electric, around one third of which are pure battery models, and two thirds are plug-in hybrid.[1]

This radical shift is just beginning though. Britain’s electric vehicle fleet is expected to expand ten-fold over the next five to ten years. In more optimistic scenarios, half of all vehicles on the road could be electric just fifteen years from now.[2]

While many see EVs as the cleanest way to drive, they are still the subject of much speculation. Recent criticisms range from a UK government report saying they won’t end air pollution[3] to a string of studies (often debunked) claiming they emit more CO2 than diesel equivalents.[4]

The arguments are simple: how can it be cleaner to swap a petrol car for electric if it is recharged using electricity from dirty coal or gas? Secondly, how can electric vehicles ‘repay’ the energy needed for mining lithium and to assemble the huge batteries that power them?

We review academic studies of battery manufacture and use data from Electric Insights to answer these questions.  On average Britain’s EVs emit just one quarter the CO2 of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles. If the carbon emitted in making their battery is included, this rises to only half the CO2 of a conventional vehicle. Electric vehicles bought today could be emitting just a tenth that of a petrol car in five years’ time, as the electricity system is widely expected to continue moving towards low-carbon sources.

Manufacturing each kWh of battery emits a similar amount of carbon as burning through one full tank of petrol.[5] Electric vehicles typically have a battery capacity ranging from 30 kWh for small city hatchbacks up to 100 kWh for top-end models – manufacturing the latter emits as much carbon as three round-the-world flights. More CO2 is emitted in building the battery for premium EV model than from the recharging it over a 15-year lifetime.[6]

However, the most efficient EV models could need just two to three years of driving to save the amount of carbon emitted in producing their batteries. Smaller EVs with modest battery sizes are better for the environment; whereas the largest luxury EV models could need three times longer to pay back their carbon cost.


Small hatchbacks are the best-selling type of electric vehicles, led by the Nissan Leaf. They are also the cleanest to drive as they are small and light. Electric models currently emit around 33 grams of CO2 per km driven, which is one quarter that of the most popular conventional vehicle, a 2019 Ford Fiesta.

Volkwagen e-up! electric car showcased at the Frankfurt IAA Motor Show 2017.

These electric models typically come with a 30-45 kWh battery, which pushes their lifetime emissions up around 60 g/km. This is still less than half the emissions of a petrol or diesel car. With the projected changes to the grid mix, this will fall to less than one third of a standard car in just five years’ time.

EV models: Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, Volkswagen e-Golf and e-Up, Hyundai Kona and BMW i3

Battery size: 39 kWh on average (31–46 kWh central range)

Lifetime carbon content of the battery: 26 g/km driven on average (18–34 g/km central range)

Emissions with 2018/19 grid mix: 28–38 g/km from recharging, 45–72 g/km including battery

Emissions with 2025 grid mix: 12–20 g/km from recharging, 28–52 g/km including battery


Luxury saloons and SUV models include the iconic Tesla Models S and X, and the new Jaguar i-Pace. These are much larger and need more energy to move, meaning they have higher emissions than hatchbacks, at 44-54 g/km. This is still just a quarter of the emissions from a comparable conventional car (a top of the range Mercedes S-Class).

Jaguar I Pace EV

The lifetime emissions of these luxury EVs are notably higher though, pushed up by the enormous 90-100 kWh batteries they use to provide a driving range of over 250 miles. These batteries are responsible for more CO2 emissions than driving the car over its entire lifetime.

Models considered: Jaguar i-Pace, Tesla Model S and Model X

Battery size: 97 kWh on average (90–100 kWh central range)

Lifetime carbon content of the battery: 63 g/km driven on average (47–80 g/km central range)

Emissions with 2018/19 grid mix: 44–54 g/km from recharging, 92–133 g/km including battery

Emissions with 2025 grid mix: 19–29 g/km from recharging, 63–103 g/km including battery


Electric vans are quickly taking off, with over 8,000 sold in Britain to date. Their performance is comparable to small hatchbacks, and they also currently emit around a quarter of the CO2 of the most popular conventional van, with around 40 g/km.

A white Nissan e-NV200 electric van makes deliveries in London.

With their 30–40 kWh battery pack included, this rises to just below half the CO2 of a small Ford Transit.

Models considered: Nissan e-NV200 and Renault Kangoo

Battery size: 37 kWh on average (33–40 kWh central range)

Lifetime carbon content of the battery: 24 g/km driven on average (18–31 g/km central range)

Emissions with 2018/19 grid mix: 37–43 g/km from recharging, 54–74 g/km including battery

Emissions with 2025 grid mix: 15–23 g/km from recharging32–52 g/km including battery

Payback time

A typical driver filling their car up once a month and driving around 7,500 miles per year will produce one and a half tonnes of CO2 per year in a modern petrol or diesel hatchback. An electric vehicle doing the same mileage would take 4 years to produce this amount.

With a conventional vehicle, there is no scope for reducing emissions over its lifetime, as petrol and diesel fuels cannot become carbon-free.  On the contrary, National Grid expect the carbon content of Britain’s electricity to continue falling, so that an electric vehicle bought now will be emitting half as much CO2 in 2025 as it does today.

It is inconceivable that an electric vehicle in the UK could be more polluting than its conventional equivalent.  This would require electricity to have a carbon intensity of around 850–950 g/kWh, values not seen since the 1960s.[7]

Electric vehicles can be thought of as having an upfront ‘carbon cost’ for manufacturing the battery, which can then be ‘repaid’ through lower emissions as they are driven.  With Britain’s current grid electricity (producing 205 g/kWh), smaller electric cars and vans will take between 2 and 4 years to have saved the amount of CO2 than was emitted in making their batteries.  For the larger luxury models, it will take more like 5–6 years of driving to pay back that carbon.

With each passing year as the electricity mix gets cleaner, this payback time will continue to fall, and the environmental credentials of electric vehicles will keep growing stronger.

About this study

The fuel economy and climate impact of vehicles are measured by the government through the amount of CO2 they release for every kilometre driven. The UK’s most popular car, the Ford Fiesta, emits around 120 g/km in its cleanest models and 160 g/km in the sportier versions.[9]  Electric vehicles don’t emit any CO2 while driving, but the power system does when producing the electricity needed to recharge them.

Britain’s power system has changed dramatically over the last five years, with carbon emissions halving and the share of coal generation falling from 36% to just 3%. One kWh of electricity in Britain is now contains 204 grams[10] of CO2, less than the carbon released from burning one kWh of petrol. An electric vehicle can drive up to four times further on 1 kWh than a petrol or diesel car could, because electric motors are so much more efficient.

The charts above look at three categories of vehicle – small hatchbacks, luxury saloons and SUVs, and small commercial vans. Each chart shows how the carbon emissions from an electric vehicle have fallen over the past decade, and how they are expected to continue falling in the years to come. The charts consider changes to the electricity generation mix used for recharging,[11] and a gradual reduction in emissions from battery manufacture as the electricity mix changes in other countries.[12]

The range in direct emissions from recharging (the dark blue bands) covers the main EV models currently on sale in each segment, and variants on each model available.  The top of each band (highest emissions) shows the least efficient EV model, the bottom of each band (lowest emissions) shows the most efficient. In the forecast, these bands also include the range of emissions factors for electricity production coming from National Grid’s scenarios.

There is a larger range in the estimated whole-lifecycle emissions (the lighter blue bands) due to the additional uncertainty in the emissions caused by manufacturing 1 kWh of battery capacity, and the range of battery sizes seen across EV models.

Studies have estimated a wide range of emissions, depending on the type of battery type, its design, where it is manufactured and how old the study is.  Current estimates range from 40 up to 200 kg of CO2 emitted per kWh of battery capacity.[13] We take the average across eight studies and assume 75–125 kgCO2 per kWh. The true value may be less than this, as end-of-life batteries could be recycled,[14] or could be repurposed as a second-life home or grid storage batteries. It will also reduce in future as the electricity used to make batteries is decarbonised, or as more factories switch to 100% renewable energy (as has the US Tesla Gigafactory).

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