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Let’s face it: energy efficiency is boring when compared to the (relative) excitement of developing new sources of low-carbon electricity or heat. The popular science magazines are full of articles on new forms of solar panel and the latest designs for wind turbines. Improving the insulation of ordinary homes, shifting to LED lighting or increasing the take-up of heat pumps rarely command the attention of editors.

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The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The budget confirmed the acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change‘s recommendation for carbon emissions in 2020. The UK will have to reduce its CO2 output by about 110m tonnes by 2020, equivalent to a 21% reduction on actual emissions in 2005 (and 34% on the 1990 figure). The proposed rate of emissions reduction is far faster than the UK has achieved thus far and the chancellor’s budget shows the government has started to recognise the scale of the challenge.

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Image source: Smith Electric Vehicles.

Image source: Smith Electric Vehicles.

Gordon Brown says he wants two or three cities to trial electric vehicles before the end of next year. After many false dawns, are we finally about to see the era of the battery car?

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Copyright: SyB - Fotolia.com
Copyright: SyB – Fotolia.com.

We didn’t make much progress reducing emissions when times were good. Will the looming depression makes things worse or better? The discussion of this issue, at least in the UK, tends to be superficial. The only question asked seems to be ‘will people buy less eco-bling when times are hard?’

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The Tesla Roadster
The Tesla Roadster. Image source: Tesla Motors.

Honda’s withdrawal from the hugely expensive world of Formula 1 motor racing is another illustration of the pressures on the world’s car-makers. Now might be a good time for reflection. Does it make sense to use the petrol engine as the power source for the cars on the track. Isn’t it time to switch to electric cars?

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Renault’s Zoom concept electric car. Image source: Auto Express.

Most major countries in Europe have decided to focus on one or two technologies to reduce carbon emissions. By making concentrated investments in one or two promising areas these countries are likely to achieve substantial cost reductions and rapid increases in deployment. By contrast, the UK is dabbling ineffectually in several areas and achieving little. Despite having large resources of renewable energy sources, the UK’s effort is diffuse, trivial in scope and clearly insufficient. We have almost the lowest percentage of our energy coming from low-carbon sources in the EU.

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More bad news for the poor


Two pieces of news from Tuesday 26 February. A UK investment fund is trying to raise £330m to build two large biofuels plants on the eastern coast of England. And the price of wheat rises to a new high of over $12 per US bushel in Minneapolis (over £220 per tonne) as worldwide shortages force prices ever upwards.

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TeslaShai Agassi, the California-based software superstar who wanted to run SAP but left the company in March when he didn’t get the top job, has come back into the spotlight as the CEO of an electric car start-up. The new company is funded by $200m of venture capital and investment bank money. This makes it one of the best-funded start-ups in history.

Agassi does not intend to make electric cars. Wisely, he is leaving this to the auto industry. He is focusing on the batteries. He’ll lease them to anybody with an appropriate car and he’ll develop large networks of ‘filling stations’ where the driver can quickly take out a discharged battery and swap it for a fully charged version on long journeys. By 2010, he wants a hundred thousands electric cars on the roads of California and elsewhere.

The obstacles are huge. Although lithium-iron-phosphate battery technology is improving rapidly, and will continue to do so for decades, full-size car batteries now cost at least €7,000. Getting mainstream manufacturers to build large volumes of electric cars that will take his batteries is another formidable challenge. Third, he has to persuade retailers to install the equipment to swap batteries automatically.

But our weary European scepticism needs to be rested for a moment. The long-run economics favour this idea. My sums suggest that at current UK petrol prices it costs at least six times more to drive a mile on petrol than it does on electricity. Battery prices will fall and performance will improve. At some point it is going to be so much cheaper to power a car with electrons rather than octane that even the slothful auto industry will switch. When the market has tipped it won’t be long before passenger cars are all electric. Agassi may be too early, and his business model may require too much capital, but electric cars are coming soon.

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