Morgan a feeling…

This post began as something to write about during a blogging workshop which was held at Coventry University a week or so ago under the auspices of the Guild of Motoring Writers (GoMW) and co-hosted by Automotive Journalism lecturer Andrew Noakes and GoMW Breakthrough Blogger of the Year Keith Jones. However, as it was about a rather special automotive  experience, I thought I’d better give it a polish and post it.  

Just under eighteen months ago, I was afforded the opportunity to do something that anyone with a fluid ounce (or is that millilitres these days?) of petrol in their veins should do: along with a cohort of automotive design and journalism students from Coventry University, I popped down to Great Malvern in Worcestershire and visited the Morgan car factory.

Actually, you don’t need intravenous petroleum to appreciate Morgan – you can visit out of a sense of history, or of culture, or an appreciation for craftsmanship and style. Indeed, as you pass the factory on Pickersleigh Avenue, you somehow sense that Morgan isn’t a typical 21st century car maker, and the tour doesn’t disappoint as you are taken into a world of craft automotive manufacture, with a little high-technology thrown in.

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Split into two groups from the outset, my particular group did the tour backwards – sort of – beginning in the despatch shop where customers’ cars are lined up for delivery, before going to see where the bodywork is fitted and engines are installed. Our next port of call was the body frame workshop, which is a particular delight as your senses are first assailed by the smell of wood and sawdust. And then you see – some sat upon trestles, some resting on the floor – the legendary ash frames, the architecture that will become a 4/4, a Plus-4 or a Roadster, and you begin to ‘feel’ the essence of Morgan (incidentally, contrary to popular belief, it is the body frame – and not the chassis – of a Morgan that is made of wood). It was in this workshop that we were all given wood, in the shape of an offcut with which we were presented as a souvenir by our guide. Anywhere else, and such an offcut would just be an odd-shaped bit of wood; but this is Great Malvern and so it was much, much more than a piece of misshaped arboreal detritus. I still have it.

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

Then it was over to the trimming shop where seats are fitted and dashboards installed, before proceeding to the facility where final checks are made – we didn’t get to see the paint shop – and then heading to another building where the neo-iconic 3-Wheelers are made. We only saw the final stage of this, but it was enough for a few pictures and a ponder over my next lottery win. I’ll probably need more than a tenner though.

Three wheels good... (Picture source: authors photograph).

Three wheels good… (Picture source: authors photograph).

Cars are more than just machines, and Morgans are more than just cars. They are innately anthropocentric. Whether it is the bespoke customer specifications or even just their hand-made nature, there is so much in the cars that is, for want of a better word, ‘people’ – a personality, perhaps. From a geographical and sociological point of view, there is an essence, a nature, an ‘affect’ to Morgan – both car and company – that is unique. It produces, and is, a feeling that is almost tangible.

One aspect of my PhD is concerned with the notion of the ‘affect’ of the motor car – an automotive affectus, if you will – and considers how the way that we ‘consume’ the car may impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles. Although a visit to the Morgan factory may provide a heightened sense of this, I believe that we all somehow ‘feel’ the car in a way that is manifest in the car we drive, even if we don’t realise it, and that the ‘consumption’ that in/evokes these feelings is a key yet overlooked aspect of the environmental impact of the car. Can we make the leap to a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to?

Before my factory visit, I’d always thought Morgans were okay – old-fashioned, six-year waiting list and all that – but I came away from Great Malvern wanting a Morgan – any Morgan – so much it hurt. Traditional style, modern technology and just so much essence imbued into the cars; what’s not to like? There’s even an electric one – christened the ‘Plus-E’ – knocking around somewhere; I wonder what that’s like to drive?

The factory visit is thoroughly recommended – check out the details on the Morgan website. You know you want to.

Advertisements

A conference pair

I’m not sure if academia has a conference season as such but I’ve had the pleasure of attending and presenting at not one, but two postgraduate events over the Easter period.

The first of these events was the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum (RGS-PGF) Mid-term Conference, which was held at the University of Birmingham from the 25th-27th of March. An early highlight was being greeted with “You’re the car guy!” at registration – I must have made some kind of impression at last year’s RGS-PGF. Post-registration, the first evening of the conference consisted of a wine reception, plenary welcome speeches and an impromptu curry somewhere in Selly Oak, which went some way to setting conversations and affiliations for the next couple of days.

On the day of the conference itself, a quintet of Coventrians represented both the Department of Geography, Environment and Disaster Management and the Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (or SURGE). My presentation about the background and some early findings of my research was one of five in the Transport, Mobilities and Movements session and, thankfully, was seemingly quite well received, prompting a couple of questions and the odd chuckle too. It’s the way I tell ’em, apparently.

The conference must have taken some planning, with 81 presentations over 19 sessions on the day itself, plus a session with 15 poster presentations. With so many presentations and posters, there was something for everyone, which is as it should be – after all, geography is everything and everything is geography. With up to five sessions within each of four ‘blocks’ throughout the day, some clashing was inevitable, though there were plenty of interesting presentations to be had over the day, ranging from Confucian environmental philosophies to the human, material and natural geographies in Svalbard.

Huge thanks and congratulations must go to Megan Ronayne, Colin Lorne and their team – it was a frankly corking postgrad conference, and it was great to catch up with folk from last year’s RGS-PGF again, and to meet new people too. Next year’s hosts have got a very hard act to follow.

The second event in this conference mini-season was the Tyndall Centre ‘Climate Transitions’ PhD Conference, held at Cardiff University on 3rd-5th of April, and was a very cosmopolitan affair with students from universities all over Europe in attendance. Proceedings were opened with a brilliant lecture by Professor James Scourse of Bangor University on observations and evidence of climate change, which was followed by a session of 26 poster presentations. With 11 paper and 15 speed presentations taking place over just 4 sessions – Land & Water, Energy & Emissions, Coasts & Cities and Governance & Behaviour – it was possible to attend every session, three of which were held on the second day, along with a talk about science communication (particularly blogging) given by Dr Warren Pearce of the University of Nottingham. The second day culminated in a dinner debate about fracking, with speakers from Friends of the Earth Cymru, the Tyndall Centre and a pro-fracking body called No Hot Air, which was … interesting, shall we say. In the end, hands raised in favour of, or unsure about, fracking were rather in the minority.

A souvenir of my adventures (Picture source: authors photograph)

A souvenir of my adventures (Picture source: authors photograph)

My turn to present opened the final day of the conference in the Governance & Behaviour session, where I gave an ever-so-slightly amended version of presentation I’d given at RGS-PGF the previous week. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of questions asked and comments received afterwards, and really quite chuffed at my presentation being one of four ‘best in session’ winners at the conference prize-giving afterwards, netting me a £25 Amazon voucher. The ‘best in conference’ prize deservedly went to Alexandra Gormally from Lancaster University for her presentation about community-owned renewable energy generation in Cumbria.

It was great to meet lots of new people at Climate Transitions and, again, thanks and congratulations must go to the organising committee at Cardiff University – Catherine Cherry, Erin Roberts and Sam Hubble – who, under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, organised a brilliant and wide-ranging event. An imaginative aspect of the conference was the provision of dedicated mugs to be used during breaks between sessions, and which we were told we could take home afterwards – a brilliant idea!

PhD research can be a solitary experience (especially if one lives 120 miles away from uni…), and I find that the great thing about conferences like RGS-PGF and Climate Transitions is meeting so many other students to learn about each other’s research, share experiences and chew the academic fat, even if I do feel a bit thick sometimes. As postgrads, we’re perhaps all kindred spirits, with the same problems and same joys inherent within PhD research, and coming together at conferences like RGS-PGF and Climate Transitions is palpably uplifting – indeed, the ‘fizz’ of ideas and potential around Birmingham and Cardiff was almost tangible. It was all very inspiring, reassuring and (re)affirming; re-energising, even.

And so, suitably re-energised and with morale duly boosted after two conferences in a fortnight, I feel like I’m more than ready to get back to work – well, maybe just after this next brew in my new mug…

Palm oil facepalm

The environmental imperative suggests that generating electricity from renewable energy sources as a means of reducing carbon emissions is an obvious course of action. But might some renewables end up costing the earth?

In December last year, I wrote a post expressing concern at Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Secretary Ed Davey’s decision to proceed with plans for the fracking of shale gas reserves in the UK, not only because of the environmental problems therein, but also lest it detract from investment in renewable energy technologies such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power.

Like most nascent industries (and even some established ones), the renewables industry is in receipt of government subsidy, and this subsidy takes the form of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which are issued by Ofgem to energy generators who in turn sell them to suppliers to meet their own obligations.

It may well have escaped your notice that, in the House of Lords last week, a cross-party scrutiny committee considered the Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2013 (read from 4pm), a motion proposed by DECC which largely concerned the latest round of gradual phasing down of the level of ROCs used by the government to support the renewables industry. Such phasing down is perhaps inevitable, as the costs of renewable technologies decrease over time as they are increasingly rolled out – so far, so uncontroversial. However, one aspect of the Amendment which has brought controversy concerns the place of biofuel in power generation.

Coming to a power station near you? (Picture source: bloomberg.com)

Coming to a power station near you? (Picture source: bloomberg.com)

Now I’ve long been of the opinion that, when it comes to transport, the use of biofuels rather smacks of clutching at straws, in that it detracts from land which could (should?) be dedicated to food crops and which, in turn, could potentially impact upon the supply, security and price of food. Not only that, but the energy expended in the refinement of crops into fuel renders them rather less carbon neutral than it is commonly claimed. Besides, surely crops are better used for fuelling people rather than vehicles?

Biofuel, or biomass, can take several forms, ranging from firewood in domestic wood burners to manufactured wood pellets used in industry. I must admit that the use of biomass as a means of a larger scale electricity generation is something I hadn’t really considered, although the Amendment suggests that it could provide up to 30% of the UK’s renewable energy, equating to ~4% of total energy. The Amendment also included the introduction of ‘support bands’ for existing coal-fired power stations to convert, wholly or partially, to biomass generation, along with an announcement of a 400 megawatt cap on new biomass ‘plant’ or generation. I’m not sure exactly how much this kind of generation comes to, but the proposal is causing some concern, largely due to the spectre of palm oil.

Palm oil is widely used in many domestic household and food products, and the problems wrought by deforestation – climate change, sustainability, biodiversity and habitat loss – as rainforests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations are well documented, and it has been reported that some agencies have expressed their concern that the measures proposed in the Amendment could make deforestation even worse. For example, a post by the Sumatran Orang-utan Society (SOS) claims that the Amendment’s proposed biomass cap would be high enough to double imports of palm oil into the UK. This claim is entirely plausible as it is reported that officials at DECC say they would be unable discriminate against palm oil – the cheapest liquid biofuel, according to SOS – subsidies, lest it impacts upon other biomass sources they want to encourage. But if Germany and the Netherlands can remove palm oil subsidies, why can’t we?

DEFRA and DECC seem at odds over endangered species (Picture source: independent.co.uk)

DEFRA and DECC seem at odds over endangered species (Picture source: independent.co.uk)

This is madness. In their efforts to reduce carbon emissions here, DECC are seemingly ensuring that they actually increase them elsewhere, all the while establishing monocultures and destroying habitats. SOS also point out that, with almost impeccable timing, DECC were potentially committing the habitats of endangered species to 20 years of development (the length of time that ROCs are guaranteed for) just two days after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) became part of a one-year campaign promoting awareness of endangered species. You couldn’t make it up.

That’s not all. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday morning, energy minister John Hayes debated the matter with Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the government (listen from 2:39:40 to 2:46:14) and, in defending the biomass proposals, Mr Hayes seemingly demonstrated a profound ignorance regarding sustainability matters. As I listened to the programme, I was amazed to hear him denounce concern over food production as a “detached, bourgeois view” and stunned to hear him glibly declare that “we’ve been chopping up trees and burning them since man began”. So that’s alright then!

On the basis of this performance, one wonders what hope the environment has with someone like John Hayes in office. His appointment seemingly illustrates the disdain and/or ignorance of this government regarding the environment – I wonder if Mr Hayes could be replaced by one of the orang-utans displaced by the government’s misguided renewables policy.

Incidentally, the motion was passed: greenest government ever?

RIP EV?

Reports of the death of the electric car have surfaced yet again. Why is this, and has the demise of the electric car been greatly exaggerated?

In my last post, UK unplugged as EU leads the charge, I mused upon how the Coalition Government’s attitude to a low carbon mobility infrastructure seemed to contradict that of an EU which had decided to take the ‘chicken-and-egg’ infrastructure conundrum by the scruff of the neck and actually make a decision to facilitate the roll-out of alternatively fuelled vehicles, be they electric or hydrogen (H2). One projection within the EU’s Low Emission Fuels Strategy was that of 1.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) on UK roads by 2020, figures which, judging by the Coalition Government’s attitude to joined-up low carbon automobility, would seem ambitious to say the least.

However, while the Coalition Government has made no comment regarding the 1.5 million EVs posited by the EU, it has this week seen fit to announce the results of a study by a government-industry body called UKH2Mobility, which plans to have 1.6 million hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) on UK roads by 2030. In what appears to be a ‘bad news’ week for EVs, the UKH2Mobility announcement – together with their own experiences – prompted Autocar to suggest that the end is nigh for battery-powered EVs although some, such as former motor industry executive Bob Lutz, disagree. Other reports have also declared the demise of the electric car, including this widely-quoted one on the Reuters website, which denounced EVs as a ‘dead end’, citing high purchase price, limited range and poor infrastructure leading to a lack of sales – hoary old chestnuts all but, at the same time, very real issues for potential EV buyers.

The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity - car of the future? (Picture source: author's photograph)

The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity of 2010 – car of the future. Possibly. (Picture source: author’s photograph)

But is it that people just don’t want EVs? Vehicle trials – and my early research – suggest that people who have tried EVs like them, and there are surely reasons why EVs haven’t been a rip-roaring sales success. For example, the state of the economy has meant that this is not a great time to launch an emergent technology, especially in a ‘big-ticket’ item like a car. Not only that but, as mentioned above, the EU has only recently taken steps to standardise and facilitate the roll-out of a recharging infrastructure and, as far as the battery range is concerned, technology belatedly continues apace. I say belatedly, as the Reuters article cited above leads perhaps disingenuously with the suggestion that the electric car still doesn’t pass muster “… after more than 100 years of development…” when surely battery technology as a means to power vehicles has only been pursued with any real vigour more recently, after almost 100 years ‘locked’ into internal-combustion-engine (ICE) technology. I often wonder where battery technology would actually have been ‘after more than 100 years of development’, had it been developed at the same pace as the internal combustion engine.

Another problem that has faced EVs is the way that they’ve been promoted. Mechanically different to ICEs, they offer a different driving experience and, as such, offer a different way of performing automobility. For example, the torque characteristics of their electric motors result in performance that is instantaneous, smooth, more usable and more efficient more of the time; driving an EV can be fun, especially at lower speeds. Battery capacity can diminish over time, true, but how many motorists realise that the power and efficiency of conventional ICEs decreases over time too? Add an inherent lack of noise, and the nature of the driving experience means that there’s more to EVs than hair-shirts and planet-saving, but you’d never guess it from the way they’ve been promoted.

So with cost, range, convenience and image problems, and with UK Government impetus seemingly behind the ‘new’ FCEV kid in town, it would appear – as many are suggesting – that it’s game over EVs. Or is it?

Are EVs like the Renault Fluence conceptually rooted in the 19th century? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Are EVs like the Renault Fluence conceptually rooted in the 19th century? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Reducing emissions from transport will require a suite of technologies, and both EVs and FCEVs have their part to play. However, because EVs such as the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence appear to afford a compromised way of pursuing an established mode or regime of automobility, I’m not sure that the future of EVs lies in ‘conventional’ cars such as those. Instead, it could be that the future of EVs lies in more urban-focussed vehicles offering a new mode of automobility.

On an edition of the BBC’s technology news magazine programme ‘Click’ in 2010, Sir Clive Sinclair noted how the practice of employing battery technology within a conventional automotive architecture was all very 19th century, a mindset redolent of the horseless carriages of the early days of motoring, and suggested that electric vehicles should instead represent an opportunity for revolutionary design and engineering.

Vehicles like the Renault Twizy – and concepts such as the Opel RAKe – are different propositions to more conventional cars. If promoted as vehicles which are different and fun, they’d surely be a more desirable proposition for early EV adopters and younger consumers alike and, while not costing the earth, would perhaps have more than mere utility factored into their purchase price by consumers. In addition, as urban-focussed vehicles, they would be ideally placed to make use of an existing recharging infrastructure which, in turn, may be easier to expand if limited to more urban settings rather than electric ‘superhighways’. After all, how many miles do many ‘second cars’ travel?

The Opel RAKe concept from 2011 - a better battery EV? (Picture source: author's photograph)

The Opel RAKe concept from 2011 – a better battery EV? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Because of both their size and the role that they are intended to fulfil, cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence would perhaps be more suited to hydrogen fuel cell technology than their current (badum tish!) battery technology, at least until battery and/or materials technology improves. However, in the midst of the hydrogen hype, let’s not forget that the challenges facing a hydrogen-powered automobility are similar to those faced by a nascent electrically-powered automobility. As is the case with contemporary EVs, FCEVs will be expensive to buy compared to conventional ICE cars, especially at first. There is no hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in place as yet and, as is the case with recharging EV batteries, the hydrogen used by FCEVs will only be as ‘green’ as the mode of electricity generation that produces it. And, all the while, the efficiency of ICEs has massively improved in the last decade or so, and will no doubt continue to do so.

Despite these caveats, I get the feeling that the Coalition Government appears more than upbeat about FCEVs, as if the many technical hurdles of hydrogen propulsion in cars have been addressed, and are content to speculate as to the number of vehicles and the size of infrastructure. Nevertheless, the announcement of the pursuit of FCEVs at least smacks of certainty, which is more than can be said of other recent Coalition Government announcements regarding low carbon technologies pertaining not only to transport, but energy too, and this can only aid investment.

Adopting battery-electrically powered urban vehicles in tandem with hydrogen fuel cell powered larger vehicles is one of several ways we can pursue a low carbon automobility in the future. Although FCEVs have been ‘five years away’ for some time now, this time they really may only be ‘five years away’. Possibly. Conversely, EV technology and infrastructure is here now and can be developed yet further though, admittedly, it needs to be. However, one thing that is clear is that the electric car, in one form or another, is key to future automobility.

The EV is dead. Long live the EV.

UK unplugged as EU leads the charge

The Coalition Government’s low-carbon vehicle policies are seemingly at odds with the EU’s strategy for a low carbon transport infrastructure.

Last year, an inquiry was held by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee into low carbon vehicles. A ‘call for evidence’ from interested parties was made by the Committee, and among those who submitted evidence was the Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (aka SURGE), the research body at Coventry University at which I am based for my PhD. I even put in my own submission too.

The final report, entitled ‘Plug-in Vehicles, Plugged in Policy?’, was published in September 2012 and made suggestions as to how knowledge and uptake of plug-in and electric vehicles – or Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) – could be fostered and improved, such as standardising chargepoints and suggesting a target number of plug-in vehicles in the road.

Earlier this week, the Coalition Government published its response to the select committee’s findings. Unfortunately – though perhaps unsurprisingly given the way that recent UK governments have been in thrall the free market to the detriment of everything else – the Coalition Government has decided not to do what it can to encourage a nascent low-carbon technology in which the UK could assert a lead (badum tish!), but instead to let the free hand of the market choose which of the various infrastructure and socket types employed by the various ‘Plug-in Places’ schemes up and down the country, claiming that

whilst we see there are advantages of a single recharging plug solution … our stance is that it is for the market and industry to decide what charging hardware and infrastructure will be”.

Are these different socket types compatible? What do you think? I’d be intrigued to know how many electric vehicles (EVs) regularly travel between these different locales with their various sockets and so decide which one is ‘best’. It’s as if the Coalition Government is quite happy to send the users of plug-in and electric vehicles back to the days before the National Grid was established.

Guilty as charged? The UK Government seems to have opted for business as usual - also known as chicken and egg - when it comes to plug-in vehicles. (Picture souce: authors photograph)

Guilty as charged? The UK Government seems to have opted for business as usual – also known as chicken and egg – when it comes to plug-in vehicles. (Picture souce: authors photograph)

The Coalition Government also believes that it is not its place to set targets for plug-in vehicles, again preferring to let the market decide, even though a target or ‘milestone’ would provide a marker for how successful (or otherwise) its policy has been.

That response was published two days ago. Today, the EU announced a ‘clean fuel strategy’, ranging from electricity to hydrogen to biofuels to natural gas, and setting targets for the number of electric vehicles and charging points by 2020. Included in the proposals was the announcement of the adoption of a common plug for electric vehicles – the ‘Type-2’ plug – so as to end “uncertainty in the market” as a means to foster “a critical mass of charging points so that companies will mass produce the cars at reasonable prices”. Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, said

We can finally stop the chicken and the egg discussion on whether infrastructure needs to be there before the large scale roll-out of electric vehicles. With our proposed binding targets for charging points using a common plug, electric vehicles are set to hit the road in Europe. This is climate mainstreaming in action. And a win for the climate, businesses, consumers and jobs“.

How very forward-looking and progressive. Now, compare and contrast those sentiments with the response of the UK government to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee report, and note how positive it sounds compared to almost craven market-led response of our ‘Coalition’ Government, which maintains in its response that it ‘remains committed’ to:

making the UK one of the premier markets for ULEVs, supporting the early market through the plug-in grants until at least 2015, and to continuing to work with partners in the automotive industry to remove barriers to adoption”.

Yeah, looks like it. With their decision to build the Leaf in Sunderland, perhaps Nissan are showing more of a commitment to ULEVs in the UK than the Coalition Government is!

Once again, Europe shows itself to be more environmentally progressive than the UK, with the Coalition Government’s response to the Transport Select Committee’s report seemingly contradicting the EU’s Clean Fuel Strategy. Compared to the EU strategy, the Coalition Government’s approach to fostering an adoption of ULEVs in the UK seems to underline just how backward it is in promoting a low carbon automobility – perhaps the EU’s Clean Fuel Strategy is something else upon which the Prime Minister thinks the EU has ‘gone too far’. And yet, when it comes to climate change and the environment, we are actually all in it together. Whatever happened to ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, Dave?

Something in the air

In a recent report, air pollution has been recognised as one of the top 10 global disease risk factors. Can low carbon vehicles make a difference?

A report published recently in The Lancet medical journal and highlighted here by the Green Car Reports website has investigated ‘the global burden of disease’ between 1990-2010 and listed blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use as the three leading risks to global health in 2010. But the article’s abstract also refers to ‘changes in the magnitude of … ambient particulate matter pollution’. As increasingly affluent populations aspire to the motor car, such pollution will surely increase as global automobility, led by China and India, also increases.

We’ve all seen pictures of the Los Angeles haze and the Beijing smog. From my own experience of walking down Oxford Road in Manchester, reportedly Europe’s busiest bus route, the localised air pollution from the petrol and/or diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) is almost tangible. We drink in an airborne cocktail of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), ozone (O3), hydrocarbons (HC) and  particulate matter of various sizes (PM10 and PM2.5) along every busy road we walk down. I have to say that I’ve tasted nicer cocktails.

Thanks to improved emission technologies and EU bureaucrats beating car manufacturers with their legislative sticks, cars sold in Europe are much cleaner than they once were and, as a result, air pollution from the internal combustion engine has greatly reduced, and will continue to do so. Yet we should remember that this is perhaps tantamount to ‘running to stand still’, as localised air pollution will continue to be a problem as car numbers increase.

The electric vehicle (EV), promoted ostensibly as low carbon transport, provides an answer to this issue. Admittedly, the environmental credentials of EVs are called into question given a largely fossil-fuelled mode of electricity generation and, with a blinkered government seemingly intent on pursuing fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy sources, it is true to say that the UK’s current energy mix means that equivalent CO2 emission figures of EVs – while still lower than those of ICEs – may not be quite as hoped.

But in focussing on carbon reduction, we may overlook the fact that EVs not only lack tailpipe CO2 emissions – they also lack tailpipe emissions of CO, SO2, NOX, O3, HC and PM; any tailpipe emissions, in fact. While accused by some of merely transferring carbon emissions, EVs could actually play a real part in reducing more localised, urban air pollution.

But the fact that the car is more than mere transport means that there’s more to reducing local emissions than simply changing technologies.

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

For example, in an earlier post, Défense de fumer, I mused upon my cultural unease about the potential exclusion of les voitures iconique from the streets of Paris on account of their age related emissions, and wondered if EVs like the AutoLib Bollore BlueCar or Renault Twizy might become new Parisian automotive icons. Cars don’t just carry people; indeed it is precisely because they carry people that they inevitably carry experiences and meanings. My early research suggests that EVs provide a different experience of, and meaning to, how we present and perform – or affect – individual automobilities and I wonder about the degree to which we are culturally ready to change ‘how’ we go from here. Can we change? Do we even want to?

EVs may not be the answer to the environmental impact of the car; they are instead an answer. Costs, practicalities and even desirability would appear to demand a suite of technologies to ameliorate our automotive environmental impacts, and the electric car is perhaps the most immediate answer to the provision of a low carbon automobility. Even if we are absolutely wedded to the notion of personal mobility and to our beloved cars, a wider adoption of EVs in an urban environment would at least mean that we can all start to breathe easier.

Davey’s Christmas fracker

Last week, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey gave the go ahead to the extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – in the UK as part of the UK Energy Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Commons today. Is it the answer to our energy prayers or is it too good to be true?

On the face of it, the government’s go-ahead to the extraction of shale gas in the UK would seem like a good idea; a no-brainer even. It has been claimed that this new gas supply would facilitate the UK’s energy independence and bring lower prices for consumers, much as it has in the USA. It would promote investment in the UK and create jobs. In being able to generate more power from gas instead of coal, the government say that it’s clean too. What’s not to like?

Well, consider the claims regarding gas prices, investment and energy independence. There is some dispute as to the size of the gas reserves, which as yet have only been estimated, not fully ascertained. The size of these gas reserves will impact upon how much we pay for our new gas, and it’s possible that we may not enjoy the reduction in gas prices that US consumers have. International wholesale gas prices, which will surely dictate by how much our gas bills fall (if at all), mean that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a proportion of our new gas reserves could actually be exported, should market forces and profit margins dictate. This, in turn, could mean that any financial benefits which the UK could reap may also be exported while we continue to import gas from abroad.

But, gas supporters cry, renewable energy is expensive. It has been suggested that renewable energy sources such as offshore wind are expensive to construct and, while there may be some truth in this, such installations are cheap to run once they are on stream (the same can also be said about nuclear power generation, though that has its own environmental and fiscal issues). Conversely, while gas-fired power stations are relatively cheap to build, they are expensive to run and will no doubt continue to be so, as these running costs are inevitably subject to the vagaries of international wholesale gas prices which, as we all know, tend to go up like a rocket and float down like a feather.

Incidentally, such caveats also apply to the car. While electric and plug-in hybrid cars are currently expensive to buy, they are cheaper to run than conventional cars. Conversely, conventional internal combustion-engined cars are cheaper to buy than their low carbon counterparts at the moment, but are more expensive to run and may well continue to be so. The prices of low carbon vehicles and renewable energy sources will inevitably tumble as technology advances and take-up widens.

So it appears that that claims about lower gas prices and energy independence may not be all they seem. Now consider claims about shale gas being a clean source of energy.

Depending on what you read and where, coal makes up 30-40% of the UK energy mix, and it is indeed true to say that shale gas is cleaner than coal but, then again, what isn’t? However, gas is only cleaner than coal, and not actually clean in itself. It is still a fossil fuel and, as such, will still emit carbon as it is burnt.

The Committee on Climate Change, a body which advises the government on climate matters, has said that the UK cannot pursue shale gas on the scale that is proposed and still meet its 2050 carbon targets. The Committee has also suggested that encouraging investment in a ‘dash for gas’ would result in less investment in renewable energy sources in the future. As if to fulfil this prophecy, Chancellor George Osborne has seen fit to announce yet another subsidy to the fossil fuel industry in the shape of tax incentives to encourage companies to exploit shale gas reserves.

Another subsidy? Oh yes. Figures from the International Energy Agency show that the fossil fuel industry received $523 billion globally in subsidies during 2011, a figure 30% higher than in 2010 and six times higher than was received by the renewables industry over the same period.

As if they need it! The developed world has been built on fossil fuels and, despite now knowing the impacts of our dependence on them, continues to be so. A new geological era – the Anthropocene – has even been coined because of it. Why on earth do fossil fuel companies require subsidising? Surely it is nascent industries which offer the chance to escape the lock-in fossil fuels and do things better which warrant subsidy, not a business-as-usual scenario. The subsidising of fossil fuels suggests an addiction to carbon.

How can a merely comparatively clean energy source be described as environmentally friendly or ‘green’ when it attracts investment away from truly clean energy sources? By proffering tax incentives to oil and gas companies, Mr Osborne also seems ignorant to the fact that the 2008 Climate Change Act – the first of its kind in the world – is actually law, and exploiting shale gas reserves simply will not do enough to decarbonise the UK energy mix.

To extract the gas from shale beds, a process known as hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is employed, whereby a well is drilled into the ground and a cocktail of sand, water and chemicals is blasted into the well to fracture the bedrock and release the gas therein, which is then brought to the surface. However, this brings another environmental problem, one which also illustrates the spin and flawed media reporting associated with the fracking process.

It has been widely reported how test drilling in the Blackpool area of Lancashire was suspended in 2011 because of small tremors later accredited to the activity, and which subsequently led to a moratorium on the drilling. To his credit, Ed Davey last week announced a ‘red line’ of 0.5 on the Richter scale as a condition of the resumption of drilling, as opposed to the ‘red line’ 1.7 on the Richter scale reportedly demanded by drilling company Cuadrilla. Yet because minor tremors are very common in the UK, whether they are natural or the result of historic mining activity, surely the relatively minor seismic activity resulting from fracking is the least of our worries.

It’s entirely possible that gas wells will pass through groundwater sources as they are drilled into the bedrock which, in turn, means that there is the potential for the water table to be contaminated by the pressurised chemical cocktail – the ingredients of which are shrouded in secrecy – used in fracturing. Although deemed unlikely, the potential for such contamination is surely a much greater issue than low level seismicity, and it yet has been glossed over in comparison to the emphasis given to minor seismicity. It seems that we have forgotten just how utterly elemental water is, at least until the worst happens.

Shale gas may have a place in the transition to a low carbon energy mix, but to pursue it at the expense of renewables is short-sighted. We are an island nation surrounded by waves and tides, and our location provides us with the best wind resource in Europe. We even receive daylight. Our unique geography means that we are in a prime position when it comes to renewable energy resources, and yet we are a mere 25th place out of the 27 EU nations in terms of renewable energy provision, ranking above only Luxembourg and Malta.

Investment in renewable energy, together with energy efficiency policies, would create jobs and would be better placed to provide energy independence than would shale gas. Given the potential wealth of natural, renewable energy resources we have in the UK, it is investment in a nascent renewables industry, and not the dash for shale gas, that is the real no-brainer.