Driving Blind

According to the Automobile Association around 150,000 drivers annually fill up their tanks with the wrong fuel. I was one of those last week; 60 litres of petrol into a diesel car. Only when it spluttered to a halt did I realise the stupid mistake. The nice man who drained the petrol said I was lucky – if I’d filled a petrol car with diesel, then the engine would have been much more damaged. I couldn’t help thinking that I should have bought an all-electric car. Plug in and go! And help the climate, too.

Except – of course – it wouldn’t be helping the climate all that much. After all, electricity generation remains a fairly ‘dirty’ business. According to the World Coal Association, the UK was the world’s seventh-biggest coal importer in 2013. Energy UK, the trade association for the country’s energy industry, says that most of the UK’s electricity generation comes from burning fossil fuels, which in 2010 was primarily natural gas (47%) and coal (28%). The proportions will not have altered much in five years except that as coal has become cheaper, it may in fact be more used today; in 2010 just 7% of our electricity derived from renewable sources and 16% from nuclear reactors. The UK has been set by the EU a target of generating 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. That’s going to be tough to achieve.

An old technology

The electric car is an old technology. The first were made in the 1880s but cheap oil quickly drove them off the road. Car technology today is moving ahead in fits and starts, under pressure of high oil prices (at least until recently) and increasing anxiety over carbon emissions.

There have been steps in the right direction. We are all familiar with the Toyota Prius, a petrol-electricity hybrid, which first went on sale in 1997; around five million Prius’s have now been bought around the world, which sounds impressive but is actually less than 1% of the world’s total car pool. The total amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere each year by 1.2 billion cars is more than 1.7 billion tonnes – equivalent to burning all the coal in a train that stretches around the world 12 times. All-electric cars – with no nasty exhaust pipe emissions – have begun to make some inroads, but their high price (even with sporadically applied government subsidies) and relatively short range – generally less than 50 miles – has understandably inhibited consumer demand. And their heavy batteries with a relatively short life remain troubling.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that buying an all-electric car remains a kind of consumer fashion statement, a declaration of intent to help the wheezing planet rather than a really useful combatant in the fight against global warming.

The future should be cleaner

Who wouldn’t want to drive a car that takes three minutes to fill, has a 400 mile range, and which has only water coming out the end of its exhaust? Charles Purkess, head of marketing with ITM Power – a member company of the Social Stock Exchange – is an intelligent evangelist on behalf of the hydrogen-fuelled car, which has all these characteristics. “The plug-in electric car is but a stepping stone on the route to society adopting a truly clean method of transport. Hydrogen-fuelled fuel-cell vehicles are the perfect low-carbon technology, and do not interrupt regular business,” he says.

ITM Power designs and manufactures energy storage and clean fuel systems, building and developing electrolysers for use in balancing electricity national grids and also to produce hydrogen fuel for cars using surplus renewable energy. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. When it’s burned the only waste product is water. In the era of global warming and the need for clean air in our cities, it seems to be the perfect fuel. So why aren’t we all driving round in hydrogen-powered cars? The reason is very human – we have taken the easiest route, and that was to burn hydrocarbons for fuel.

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology has existed for decades, but the earliest version was expensive to produce and run, and heavy. Today, however, advances being made by car manufacturers such as Hyundai and Toyota have reduced costs and the size of fuel-cells such that they are commercially viable and operating. Both companies have hydrogen-fuel cell cars one can buy or lease. And ITM Power will have three hydrogen refuelling stations in London this year, making hydrogen on-site, with a further two in 2016.

So why the delay?

It’s another chicken and egg story. The current hydrogen-fuel vehicles are pricey at around £50,000, and there are very few hydrogen fuel pumps around. The price of a vehicle will fall – but only drop closer to conventional vehicle prices if car manufacturers can sell lots of units, i.e. if the concept can be made mass-marketable. But consumers are unlikely to adopt fuel-cell vehicles without being assured that on their 400 mile trip they will find a spot to re-fuel. Who is going to fund the cost of building lots of hydrogen fuel stations, or install hydrogen pumps at conventional petrol/diesel stations?

By coincidence, this week a bunch of senior British scientists, businessmen and civil servants said their proposal to arrest global warming is a kind of ‘Apollo moon mission’ programme – it took $150 billion to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, and surely rich countries could muster that kind of cash to stop irreversible global warming? They’d like to see wealthier nations put 0.02% of annual gross domestic product into funding technological breakthroughs to make renewable energy cheaper than coal by 2025.

Very laudable. But how about siphoning a bit of that $150 billion into building a global infrastructure for hydrogen-fuel pumping stations? It would help incentivise consumers to buy the cars; the car prices would come down dramatically; quite a few of those 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 would not escape into the atmosphere; and a virtuous circle would be the end result. A bit of lateral thinking is all that’s needed.