A Beginner’s Myth-busting Guide to Electric vehicles
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard about the increasing uptake of electric vehicles around the globe, and are now curious. You may have heard many good news stories from owners, but also read the occasional article in a newspaper, or seen something on TV, that suggests that EVs aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be. I am a battery electrochemist who has been working with – and driving – electric vehicles, or EVs, since 2009. During that time, seen the vast improvement of EVs and battery tech, and experienced it through the EVs that I’ve owned: a 1999 Peugeot 106 Electric, a 2014 Nissan LEAF and a 2015 Tesla Model S. However, I’ve also heard plenty of comments from naysayers – most of whom have never driven EVs before – including myths about cost, practicality, sustainability and lifespan. In this blog, I’ll try to answer the most common questions that most people have about EVs, dispel some of the myths and give you the facts. I will also be pointing out some of the many different advantages of EVs, some of which could save you a lot of money.
FACT: Owning an Electric Car will 100%, Save you
As the cost of battery tech has fallen, and demand for – and supply of – EVs has increased, the cost of EVs has fallen, all whilst adding more range and features. EVs are rapidly approaching the point where they will be cheaper to buy than a brand-new petrol or diesel car. In China, an electric city car recently went on sale for $4,000 brand new! Whilst electric cars are holding their values really well, there are still bargains to be had on the second hand market, with older examples of the Nissan LEAF, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Renault Zoe now available to buy from around £5,000 on theevmarketplace.com. Once you’ve bought your EV, the running and maintenance costs are minimal, since electric motors are very reliable and efficient.
FACT: Owning an EV is at least 50% Cheaper compared to a petrol, diesel or Hybrid car
So how much money can an EV save me?
One of the biggest questions that prospective EV buyers and leasers have is “How much money will an EV save me?” I bought my 24 kWh “short range” Nissan LEAF, a 5-seater family car which has a range of about 60-80 miles, to replace my Mk1 Honda Insight, a diminutive 2-seater space capsule of a hybrid which can easily achieve 70 miles per gallon at 70 miles per hour, and is just about the most efficient car without a plug on it. The original plan was for my LEAF to be used on my 50 mile round trip commute, with my Insight being kept for weekend visits to friends and family further afield. My LEAF was charged at home using a standard electricity tariff of 15p/kWh, and averaged 4 miles per kWh of battery capacity when in use.
Despite having the toughest petrol-powered competition against which to prove its financial savviness, my LEAF saved me £800 per year in petrol and maintenance costs, and that’s not even comparing apples with apples: if the LEAF was pitted against an equivalent size of 5-seater petrol or diesel car, the savings would be nearer £1,300 per year, factoring in fuel, tax (EVs and some hybrids, like my old Insight, have £0 car tax) and maintenance. What’s more, if I’d used an electricity tariff that gives cheaper electricity overnight, I could have slashed my LEAF’s running costs even further, boosting those savings by an extra £300 per year. There are even “dynamic” electricity tariffs, that track the wholesale price of electricity and change their tariff every half an hour to reflect supply vs demand. These tariffs have been known to go negative during periods of high renewable energy output and low grid demand, meaning that EV drivers are paid to charge their cars!
FACT: With home charger smart technology, you can pause charging at peak times, to help save even more money.
The vast majority of my charging is done at home, using a 7 kW home charger that was installed with the help of the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV) home charge point grant of up to £350. EV drivers in Scotland also benefit from the Energy Saving Trust Scotland home charge point grant of up to an additional £300 towards the cost of installation. This provides much faster charging than a domestic 3-pin socket, and adds range at a rate of roughly 20-35 miles per hour depending on your EV; this is enough to fully charge my older LEAF, with its smaller battery, in 4 hours. If you don’t have a garage or driveway, OZEV have an On-street Residential Chargepoint Scheme, which gives your local Council funding to install a charge point outside your house – ask your local Council and Councillors to make use of this funding. On top of this, OZEV also has a Workplace Charging Scheme, which provides your workplace with funding to install charge points. All of this is in addition to the vast public charging networks being built by Local Authorities and several commercial charging networks, such as InstaVolt, Gridserve and Osprey, that provide fast and convenient rapid charging along motorways and in town centres. Major supermarkets and retail parks are installing charge points, too. There are in fact more charge point locations in the UK (14,875 and counting) than petrol stations (8,385) – that’s 77% more locations, and chances are by the time you read this, that percentage will be out of date and even higher. PlugShare and Zap-Map are two good apps that show you where the nearest charge points are to your home and work.
FACT: There are over 285,000 charging points across Europe and over 1 million Globally.
Speaking of rapid charging, I quickly found with my LEAF that rapid charging infrastructure across the UK is expanding so quickly that I could take my LEAF anywhere. Instead of using my Insight for longer treks, I ended up taking my LEAF from Edinburgh to as far south as Leeds and as far north as Skye, with my Insight being relegated to an occasional run to stop it seizing up! My Skye road trip is documented on Plug Life Television on YouTube, where you’ll see how good charging infrastructure is even in the most rural of locations. The vast majority of new public rapid chargers accept contactless payment, with the rest being accessible via app or membership card. Rapid charging networks are increasing in size and spread, with multiple brands now offering cross-continental rapid charging hubs in Europe and North America, making it even easier to drive even the oldest EV with the shortest range on an epic road trip – I know people who have done this and loved it!
FACT: 68% of journeys taken in the UK are under 5 miles, and with an average round trip commute in 2019 being 23 miles. All Electric Cars and nearly all Electric Motorbikes, or even Electric Scooters and Skateboards, can cover these distances.
The Skye road trip also highlighted another big advantage of electric vehicles – their sheer power and torque. Even my LEAF managed to tackle exceptionally steep gradients like they weren’t there, whilst petrol and diesel cars were reduced to screaming away in first gear. EVs don’t have a gearbox, because electric motors are so torque (or, in crude terms, able to put their power down on the road) that they don’t need them, even for insanely steep hill starts. On the way back down that hill, the electric motor acts as a generator, converting kinetic energy back into electrical energy and using it to charge the battery. This is called regenerative braking, and on more extreme road trips, it noticeably increases your range – it also reduces wear of the mechanical brakes, meaning they rarely need replaced, which saves you even more money vs a petrol or diesel car.
Brake pads aren’t the only things on which an EV saves you money. EVs are mechanically very simple and are borderline indestructible. Whilst they have some common car components (suspension, window wipers – wheels!), they remove a lot of the least reliable components from petrol, diesel and hybrid cars – no gearbox, no clutch, no head gasket, no timing belt, no exhaust, no catalytic converter, no fuel/exhaust filters… the list goes on. Those savings quickly add up, especially if you do high mileage, like taxis, or lots of short stop-start runs that gunk up diesel filters, like delivery drivers. It’s no wonder that electric vehicles are very popular in both of those industries. Identical LEAFs to mine are regularly used as taxis; one of them in Cornwall clocked up 174,000 miles in four years on the original battery, and its only mechanical repair in all of that time was one ball bearing. Name one petrol, diesel or hybrid car that can claim that level of reliability.
FACT: EV Batteries last longer than most petrol, diesel or hybrid engines.
EV batteries last a lot longer than you may think. The LEAF taxi above managed pretty decent mileage on its battery, despite the LEAF not having a battery cooling system and therefore not being designed for constant use and constant rapid charging.
The vast majority of EVs on the market do have battery cooling systems (“thermal management systems”), which keep the battery at its optimum temperature and further extend the lifespan of the battery’s cells.
They also have advanced Battery Management Systems (BMS), which keep a close eye on the cells’ voltage, current and temperature, and keep these within a much more battery-friendly range than you’ll find in smartphone and laptop batteries; hence why these die so quickly whilst EV batteries last so long. Meanwhile, improvements in the battery lab have made it into each new generation of electric vehicle, further boosting range and lifespan, whilst reducing and even removing contentious materials like cobalt.
FACT: Electric vehicle batteries can be reused & recycled
All of this translates into EV batteries having a lifespan of hundreds of thousands of miles, before the batteries are eventually reused in grid storage applications for many years, and then recycled using one of many increasingly efficient recycling techniques.
That’s all well and good, but are batteries damaging to the environment in the first place? Do they not take up lots of resources?
Firstly, many people are surprised to learn that lithium-ion batteries don’t actually contain a lot of lithium: in fact, lithium only makes up about 10% of a lithium-ion cell. Lithium isn’t a rare metal either: there are 14 million tonnes of lithium on land, and 230 billion tonnes in the sea. That’s enough lithium to make the battery pack for over 18 trillion 40 kWh Nissan LEAFs. We’re certainly not going to run out of it! As well as being found in seawater, lithium is found in deposits all over the world, with Europe, Australia, North American and South America all having active lithium extraction facilities. Also, whilst some people picture massive open cast mines, most lithium comes from brines. Cornwall has some of the most lithium-rich brines in the world, and two companies are currently working to commercially extract them.
Another important fact about lithium-ion batteries is that they don’t use any rare-earth elements. Arguably the most contentious material used in some batteries is cobalt, which has been highlighted for some human rights abuses in its mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whilst this does happen, it only occurs at a tiny number of artisanal mines, and EV manufacturers are becoming increasingly involved in their cobalt supply chain to make sure that none of their cobalt is responsible for human rights abuses. Also worthy of note is the company Fairphone, which is actively working with artisanal mines to improve working conditions and pay. Sadly the same cannot be said of most other users of cobalt – major smartphone and consumer electronics manufacturers, jet engine manufacturers, and the oil and gas industry, which uses cobalt as a catalyst to refine petrol and diesel – so petrol and diesel cars use cobalt, too.
Cobalt is being rapidly phased out of EV batteries, too. The cobalt content of leading EV batteries has been slashed by 90% over the past decade and continues to decline; the same progress has not been made in the lithium-ion batteries found in consumer electronics. In addition to this, leading battery manufacturers are introducing cobalt-free versions of “NMC” lithium-ion batteries to the market, and Jeff Dahn’s research group, which works closely with Tesla, found that the cobalt in its “NCA” batteries is actually just in there for the ride and isn’t required for thermal stability as previously thought. Not only will NCA likely go cobalt-free in the near future, but Tesla has started using “LFP” lithium-ion batteries in its Chinese-built Model 3. LFP is particularly interesting because it is a well-established, mature cobalt-free lithium-ion chemistry, which uses cheap and abundant materials, is safe and has a long lifespan. It is extensively used in electric buses, but its energy density – the amount of range you can squeeze into a given volume of battery pack – is low. This has largely prevented LFP’s use in cars until the latest breakthroughs in chemistry and packaging that are now being used by Tesla, which allow LFP to give a high performance car a range of 200 miles per charge. This could see even more EVs going cobalt-free – and becoming cheaper – in the very near future.
It’s also worth noting that an increasing number of EV batteries are being manufactured in facilities that are powered by renewable energy, such as the Tesla gigafactories, BMW Leipzig and Nissan Sunderland. Volkswagen has announced that its EVs will be produced in a carbon-neutral manner too. Therefore, electric cars easily save tens of tonnes of CO2 over their lifespan vs running a petrol, diesel or hybrid car, including battery manufacture and even assuming that the car is powered by a comparatively carbon-intensive grid. And of course, as mentioned before, EV batteries are providing more and more range per charge, and lasting longer and longer, before going on to a second life in grid storage and then being fully recycled. You can only burn petrol or diesel once.
So, having taken my work home with me and driven EVs, and then crunched the numbers for good measure, I can confirm that EVs are good for your pocket and for the planet. Of course, walking, cycling or taking electric public transport is even better – and there are electric bikes for sale on theevmarketplace.com – but for those occasions when you need to drive, an electric car beats anything with a petrol or diesel engine in it, hands down. The range and charging times of modern EVs is always improving, but even older EVs from the early 2010s are perfect runabouts that are surprisingly capable of taking on cross-country (or cross-continent!) treks, and the charging infrastructure is there to support them. Their raw materials aren’t as scary as some people may think, and they can be reused and recycled again and again. This is still just the beginning of the rEVolution, and EVs are getting better and better, but if you’re driving a petrol, diesel or hybrid car today, it’s absolutely worth making the switch – having done so over 10 years ago, I can vouch for that myself.