9th April 2020

Culture / Euan McTurk

Myth Busting Scepticism Behind Electric Vehicles

124 14 mins 5

Dr Euan McTurk is an electrochemist and electric vehicle battery engineer who has been driving electric vehicles since 2009. His public outreach and battery education work has earned him the title of GreenFleet Electric Vehicle Champion 2018. He currently works at a smart battery management system company in Edinburgh and runs a YouTube series on battery technology and electric vehicles called Plug Life Television.

In the last ten years we have seen a substantial shift in personal and public transport. A combination of better battery technology, greening grids and Dieselgate have thrust electric vehicles into the spotlight, and sales are taking off rapidly. As with any revolutionary, “new” technology (electric vehicles have been around -in some form or another- since the 19th Century), there has been a lot of criticism and scepticism regarding many aspects of electric vehicles; affordability, infrastructure and raw materials to name a few. This has been exacerbated by unchallenged opinion pieces and simply incorrect reporting in the press, which has caused some concern amongst prospective buyers. As someone who started the 2010s behind the wheel of a Peugeot 106 Electric and ended the decade heading up a new battery laboratory, I have been lucky enough to liaise with leaders from industry, academia and the motoring trade to get the real, clear answers to these pressing, and often unanswered, questions.

Myth 1: “EV batteries are made of rare and destructive materials and aren’t recycled.”

Firstly, contrary to popular belief: there are no rare earth metals in lithium-ion batteries, those used in electric vehicles. The most contentious materials contained within the battery cells -which generate the headlines- are lithium and cobalt, so let’s look at these in more detail.

Lithium is far more abundant than many people think: there are approximately 14 million tonnes of it on land and 230 billion tonnes of it in the sea, and supply is ramping up with demand. There are even lithium-rich brines down the old tin mines in Cornwall, so the U.K. has a native supply of this EV (electric vehicle) battery ingredient. Also, there is surprisingly little lithium in a lithium-ion battery, only about 7% of its mass is lithium.

Cobalt is an expensive metal which has gathered a lot of media attention due to artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, some of which use child labour. The use of cobalt in most EV batteries has consequently resulted in EVs taking a lot of criticism in the press. However, the cobalt content of leading EV batteries has been slashed by 90% over the past decade and continues to decline. Conversely, smartphones and laptops still tend to use lithium cobalt oxide (LCO), which is comprised of 40% cobalt. Jeff Dahn’s research group which works closely with Tesla, recently showed that the lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (NCA) cathodes used in Tesla’s cars don’t actually need cobalt at all. So there is a very real possibility that Tesla could go cobalt-free in the next few years. Furthermore, other battery manufacturers are starting to introduce cobalt-free chemistries to the market, alongside the cobalt-free lithium iron phosphate (LFP) chemistry, which has been around for years and is used extensively in electric buses.

Whilst the Democratic Republic of Congo exports over half of the world’s cobalt supply, it is important to note that artisanal mines provide a tiny fraction of DRC’s cobalt output, and that electric vehicle manufacturers keep a close eye on their supply chains to ensure that none of their cobalt comes from these unethical sources. It is also worth noting that cobalt is used to refine petrol, a point that often slips under the radar when criticising the materials used in EV batteries.

Before EV batteries are sent for recycling, they are reused. After a lifespan of typically a decade or more in an electric vehicle, the batteries still have at least 70% of their original capacity, and so are used in “second life” applications such as grid storage. The comparatively easy life they lead in these applications extends their lifespan by -at least- another decade before they are recycled, further reducing the demand for raw materials for the applications in which they are used. A prime example is the on-site grid storage battery at Dundee city council’s flagship Princes Street public charging hub for electric vehicles, which is comprised of three old Renault Zoe battery packs stacked on top of each other.

Modern EV battery recycling techniques now recover up to 100% of the materials in lithium-ion cells. The U.K. government is heavily investing in lithium-ion battery recycling research and development projects in order to create a closed-loop supply chain for its growing battery industry. The lithium, cobalt and other materials recovered from old batteries can be recycled and reused again and again. You can only burn petrol or diesel once.

Myth 2: “The National Grid will collapse if we all go electric.”

When it comes to the capacity of the National Grid, far from being part of the problem, EVs are part of the solution. There are about 31.3 million cars in the U.K., but if they were all electric, we would not all plug in as soon as we get home from work, just like we don’t all go to the petrol station at 5pm. Firstly, the average daily mileage in the U.K. is approximately 22 miles, so a typical new electric car would only need to be plugged in once per week anyway. Secondly, EV drivers are already incentivised to plug in overnight, when there is excess renewable energy on the grid and very low demand. Some utility firms like Octopus Energy offer EV electricity tariffs that provide 4 hours overnight at 5p/kWh; about a third of the average domestic electricity tariff. This incentivises drivers to set the timers on their cars to start charging when electricity is cheapest. Furthermore, Octopus Energy also has a dynamic electricity tariff which tracks the wholesale price of electricity. If the renewable output is high and grid demand is low, wholesale prices can go negative. There have already been multiple occasions when EV drivers have been paid to charge their cars. Not only does this help to balance the National Grid, but it makes use of excess renewable energy that would otherwise have been wasted by having to throttle back or shut down wind farms just to prevent the grid from being overloaded with excess electricity. Plus, from the driver’s perspective, there are savings to be made and profits to be had without impacting one’s daily routine and unlike petrol, diesel or hybrid cars, you can wake up to a full “tank” whenever you need it.

We are also now starting to see Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) chargers coming onto the market. This means that a car can be charged overnight on cheap, excess renewable energy, and a small percentage of the battery’s capacity returned to the grid at peak times (e.g. in the evening when everyone is cooking dinner). This helps to balance the grid, maximise the use of renewable energy and minimise the use of fossil fuel, all whilst financially rewarding the EV driver with a generous peak-time export tariff.

To put into perspective the scale of the benefit that V2G has for the National Grid: if just 10% of Britain’s cars were EVs with V2G chargers capable of exporting 7 kW of power back to the grid, the peak power available to the National Grid from electric vehicles would be equivalent to nearly seven Hinkley Point C nuclear power plants.

Myth 3: “I can’t afford an EV.”

Over 80% of brand-new cars in the U.K. are bought via Personal Contract Purchase (PCP), where the buyer pays a deposit followed by a monthly fee (usually for 3 years), with the option to pay a final balloon payment to buy the car outright at the end. EVs can also be bought this way, which helps to spread out the purchase price of a brand-new car and allows the substantial savings in fuel, tax and maintenance to be truly appreciated on a monthly basis. If you don’t mind not owning the car at the end of the contract, leasing is another great option for EVs, with numerous specialists able to provide some seriously competitive deals on some of the best electric cars on the market. If you’d like to buy outright, Scottish buyers are lucky enough to benefit from a £35,000, 6-year, interest-free electric vehicle loan from Energy Saving Trust Scotland.

Of course, there’s also a booming second-hand market. Whilst residual values of most EV models are holding strong due to growing demand, there are still some bargains to be had. Combining a second- hand purchase with a low-interest personal loan is another way to spread the cost if you don’t have the cash up front, whilst genuinely saving a healthy sum each month in running costs. In fact, I’ve calculated that a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a budget electric car that is capable of longer journeys than many people think, is cheaper to own and run than the cheapest petrol car on Autotrader and that’s even if the petrol car was given to you for free.

Whilst some second-hand car dealers don’t know much about EVs and will try to sell you whatever petrol or diesel cars they have in their inventory, there are also EV specialists. I highly recommend Jonathan Porterfield’s Eco Cars, based on Orkney, who can source EVs to order and can deliver anywhere in the U.K. Jonathan has so far sourced at least six EVs for me, my friends and my family, and all of us were very happy with the experience!

As battery costs continue to fall and production of EVs continues to ramp up, the price of new EVs is falling too. The new electric Mini is available to buy for less than its petrol-powered equivalent and Volkswagen’s new ID3 will have a starting price that’s less than an equivalent diesel car. Nonetheless, there’s no point holding off until prices come down further when there are substantial savings to be had already. To put it another way, there’s no point waiting for smartphones to stop becoming cheaper and more powerful with every new release if you’re currently stuck with a Nokia 3310.

This article barely scratches the surface of the advantages of electric vehicles, and only answers a small number of the common misconceptions about them. This is the very reason why I created the YouTube channel Plug Life Television. As well as explaining some of the technical aspects of EVs and batteries, and showcasing some of the best EV success stories from around the world, I have created a video and live talk called “Electric vehicles – you’ll wish you’d bought one sooner,” which busts several common myths about EVs and gives a plethora of top tips on EV purchasing/leasing and ownership. Hopefully after reading this article and checking out Plug Life Television, I’ll see you at a public charge point very soon.

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Euan McTurk

Dr Euan McTurk is an electrochemist and electric vehicle battery engineer who has been driving electric vehicles since 2009. His public outreach and battery education work have earned him the title of GreenFleet Electric Vehicle Champion 2018. He currently works at a smart battery management system company in Edinburgh and runs a YouTube series on battery technology and electric vehicles called Plug Life Television.

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