The Government has binned Network Rail's Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy but does the expected four-fold increase in electricity prices also leave the government's plan to decarbonise road transport underwater? Flooded Tesla charging stations at Wokingham. Photo via @MegBaynes on Twitter.
At a recent conference Network Rail confirmed that its Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy programme was undeliverable by 2050 as the government's 2021 Comprehensive Spending Review had made a rolling programme of electrification unaffordable. Therefore the focus in future will be on rolling stock solutions based on bimodes with the flexibility to replace diesel engines with alternative power sources, diesel hybrid, battery, and hydrogen. The reasoning given is that carbon emissions from rail transport are not significant compared to road transport, and that capital spend has to be focused on delivering IRP. Another factor that was not mentioned may be that the increase in electricity prices has removed the operating cost advantage of electric over diesel trains, destroying the business case for electrification.
The government's Transport Decarbonisation Plan focuses on electric vehicles as the solution, rather than increasing the use of rail as the most sustainable form of transport (even without electrification).
People have been encouraged to buy electric cars because until recently they cost substantially less to run than petrol cars. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting increase in gas and electricity prices has changed all that. From April 2023, the fuel or energy costs of petrol and electric cars will be broadly similar.
Taking the Kia Niro as an example, with consumption figures from Autocar:
- The petrol hybrid version has a fuel consumption for mixed journeys of around 50mpg, which with petrol currently around £1.60 per litre equates to 14.5 pence per mile.
- The EV version has a claimed range of 290 miles on a 64.8KWh battery. Research by Cornwall Insight predicts a home electricity price of 60p per KWh in April 2023 (4 times the price in 2021), which with a charging efficiency of 90% equates to 15 pence per mile. There will be targeted support for the electricity price, but people that can afford a new car are unlikely to qualify. Overnight off-peak electricity can be cheaper, but the saving is likely to be offset by a higher price for other use of electricity on the daytime tariff. Commercial charging stations will have different prices which could be higher.
The initial purchase price of the EV is approximately 30% higher than the petrol version, although it does have better performance.
Nor is an electric vehicle completely green – approximately 40% of electricity in Britain is generated from fossil fuels. Gas is currently the most expensive source of electricity, so logically electricity suppliers will maximise their use of other sources and minimise the use of gas. This means that any extra demand for electricity, such as to charge the electric car you have just bought, will be met by extra generation from gas as the other sources will already be fully utilised – so your electric car will not be green at all. This is true even if you are on a 'green' tariff, which just means that your supplier buys enough electricity from renewable sources to supply its customers on that tariff.
This is a lithium leach field, part of the process of making electric vehicle batteries. It is so neuro-toxic that a bird landing on it dies in minutes. What would it do to your nervous system? Not all countries have the same environmental standards as the UK. Photo from Twitter.
There is also doubt over whether the supply of critical minerals is enough to replace all petrol and diesel vehicles with electric vehicles:
Gas and so electricity prices are unlikely to fall significantly until substantial new nuclear, renewable and biogas capacity comes on stream in both the UK and Europe. The government has announced the laudable intention of making Britain self-sufficient in energy by 2040,but achieving it will require major investment which has yet to be seen – and additional grid capacity will be required to charge electric vehicles.
The cost of living squeeze means that many people will consider price first, so only those who believe in going green will buy electric vehicles. This puts a big hole in the government's decarbonisation strategy. Worse, the lack of a price differential in running costs removes the opportunity to replace fuel duty (currently 45p per litre) with an alternative such as road pricing, so even if the strategy of transferring to electric cars succeeds the government will lose the £40Bn tax currently raised each year on fuel.
Rather than allowing the railways to stagnate, the government must exploit their potential to decarbonise transport by attracting more passengers to rail and working to meet a target of doubling freight by rail. It must also identify, define and rapidly implement projects for substantial nuclear, renewable and biogas power generation, to reduce the dependence on expensive and high-carbon natural gas.
Nuclear power dash
Real time GB electricity generation mix
Energy Guide UK
UK gas supply sources – approximately half comes from Norway.