Range-extended plug-in electric cars are leading the way for green motoring in the UK

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26 July 2012, Electricity

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In January 2011, the government introduced the Plug-in Car Grant, which is a scheme that covers 25% of the cost of new plug-in electric cars, up to a maximum of GBP5,000. Initially, GBP43m was set aside for the scheme, allowing for at least 8,600 new plug-in electric cars to be bought by March 31, 2012. By the time a review of the scheme took place in January 2012, sales had increased from 138 plug-in electric cars in 2010 to around 1,052 cars that were registered eligible for the grant in 2011. Eligibility criteria for the grant include being able to travel at least 70 miles on a single charge for pure electric cars, or 10 miles on a single charge for plug-in hybrid electric cars.

The dent in the GBP43m budget at the end of 2011 was less than GBP6m, and the review of the grant scheme in January therefore extended its closing date from the end of March 2012 until the end of 2015, with the addition of a scheme for plug-in electric vans.

Transport minister Norman Baker sited the reason for the low uptake of the grant as the lack of consumer choice rather than unwillingness to purchase electric cars. Considering that the total number of new car sales in the UK numbered around 1.94 million in 2011, it would be more appropriate to say that the options presented have not been able to meet the requirements of more than a small percentage of consumers. Reasons for this include the short range of pure electric cars on a single charge (100 miles for the Nissan Leaf), the length of time needed to recharge the batteries (up to eight hours), the inconvenience of recharging, the high cost of the cars, and the uncertainty brought about by the lack of experience with the technology.

The choice of cars in 2011 included the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Renault Kangoo ZE, Peugeot iOn, and Citroen C-Zero. New eligible cars in 2012 now also include the Vauxhall Ampera and Chevrolet Volt (which are essentially the same range-extended car), the Renault Fluence ZE, and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

In the first six months of 2012, sales of cars that were eligible for the plug-in car grant numbered 809. In all, 559 of these were pure electric cars, including the Nissan Leaf which leads the sales table with 343 sold since the start of the year. The interesting new entrant to watch is the Vauxhall Ampera, which is a range-extended plug-in electric car. This is in second place with 230 sales before the end of June, despite only having been on the market since May. This is easily the quickest selling plug-in electric car on the market at the moment, and the sales rate of 115 per month is double that of the best-selling pure electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf.

The price of the Ampera is around GBP35,000 before the government grant (GBP30,000 including the grant), with 40 miles of pure electric range and a further 300 miles of generated range per tank of petrol. This compares to GBP31,000 (GBP26,000 including the grant) for the Nissan Leaf, with a 100-mile range and a charging time of 6-8 hours. The grant of GBP5,000 reduces the cost of the cars considerably, and without the grant sales would have been considerably lower. However, these cars are still expensive compared to internal combustion engine cars of similar ability, due in large part to the cost of the batteries. This could be set to change, though, as the cost of batteries is expected to reduce by half in the next five years, as charging time is reduced and capacity increases, making electric vehicles more competitive.

Despite the high cost of the first range-extended plug-in electric cars in the UK, the sales figures for pure electric cars and range-extended electric cars tell their own story. In the first six months of 2012 there were 809 eligible cars registered, compared to 602 in the same period of 2011. However, there were 559 sales of pure electric cars compared to 622 in the same period of 2011. This is around 10% fewer pure electric cars sold than in 2011, despite the overall market growing by more than a third, indicating that some of the market share has been taken away from pure electric cars by the range-extended electric cars.

As the first production cars in the UK with the range-extended plug-in electric drive system go on sale, this is clearly a technology to watch. Improved battery technology has allowed this to now become a viable alternative, and other manufacturers can easily develop similar cars with existing technology. Current components are likely to be remodeled specifically for such a drive system, saving weight and improving efficiency, and as battery technology improves, electric range increases, and the carbon intensity of the UK electricity grid is reduced by the addition of more renewable energy, these cars will effectively become more emissions friendly and will require ever less fuel from the pumps. Electric miles cost around one fifth of diesel miles, saving motorists thousands of pounds each year and reducing emissions.

This type of configuration of small electric generators and batteries is likely to have a major part to play in the future of the transport industry for all major car manufacturers, as there is no need for consumers to change their ways or for any large infrastructure changes to be implemented. Even if battery technology improves enough for pure electric car range and charge times to only be a minor inconvenience for motorists, the range-extended plug-in electric car will be here to stay.

Source: Datamonitor

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