Readers' Letters from Ethical Consumer Issue 156
Electric cars and renewable energy
It was good to see your report on electric cars but unfortunately it contains an error. Below are two statements from the report. The first is true, but the second is not:-
From an environmental point of view electric cars only really make sense if they are charged with electricity generated by renewables. Otherwise they are simply moving the pollution and CO2 emissions from the city to (mainly) conventional power stations.
This means that an electric car will only make practical sense if your home is supplied by a renewable tariff and you have access to off-street parking to charge the car.
The nub of the matter is that signing up to a renewable tariff makes no difference to UK carbon emissions. This is because signing up to a renewable tariff does not create additional renewable electricity. Renewables have grid priority, i.e. all available renewables are used all the time (except when grid constraints intervene) so signing up does not create extra renewable supplies.
At the moment on average, about 20% of our electricity comes from renewables and the balance is made up by nuclear and fossil sources. So, if no one signed up to renewable tariffs, everyone’s electricity would be 20% renewable. If I then sign up to a renewable tariff, my supply becomes completely renewable by taking a bit of renewable electricity from everyone else so they now have slightly less than 20% renewable content. Signing up to the renewable tariff does not create any additional renewable electricity so the UK carbon emissions from electricity remain the same.
It is argued that signing up to renewable tariffs creates demand for more renewable electricity, but this is currently not the case, because only 1% of UK customers are signed up for renewable tariffs. With supply at 20% and demand at 1% it must be something else that is creating additional renewable sources; i.e. government policy.
Because of the above, even if I am on a renewable tariff, plugging in a car to recharge it puts additional demand on the grid, which can ‘only’ be met by burning more coal or more gas. The CO2 from this additional demand must then be attributed to the car. In summary, it is wrong to give people the impression that signing up to a renewable tariff makes their electricity use have no contribution to UK CO2. Their contribution is unaffected by use of renewable tariffs.
John Stott by email
Ed: While there is some truth in the point you make about green energy tariffs, it is not the whole story. This issue with green tariffs has been recognised for some time and, in order to address it, the best providers offer some kind of additionality (typically by way of investment into new renewable generation). The now discontinued government accreditation scheme for green electricity tariffs also required additionality as a key element. In our Guide to Green Electricity Suppliers (on the website) we also encourage consumers to look at the overall annual ‘fuel mix’ of all the electricity bought by each supplier and to consider using those most reflecting their own concerns.
More on electric cars and renewable energy
I read your transport issue of Ethical Consumer (EC155) with considerable interest. Although there is much good information in it, there are some points with which I disagree:
1) On page 12, you talk about the considerable embodied carbon footprint of a car, but then rather bafflingly go on “this means it almost never makes sense environmentally to ‘trade up’ unless you scrap your old model”. I agree that the embodied footprint means it almost never makes sense environmentally to ‘trade up’ to a new car. Unless you are doing considerable mileage, it would be better to keep the old one going. But if you do ‘trade up’, and your old car is serviceable, it would be irresponsible to scrap it; far better to sell it on to someone who needs it, rather than waste its embodied carbon. Imagine if all used cars were scrapped, and had to be replaced by new ones. Madness! It is true that the new owner of your old car will probably use it, and thus generate emissions. But otherwise, he/she might well buy a new car, with its massive embodied carbon. Ideally, people doing really high mileages should buy new high-efficiency cars, and pass their old cars on to those of us with more modest mileages.
2) On page 16/17 you imply that it is much better to charge your car from a renewable-tariff supply. Now I use Good Energy, so am sympathetic to renewable tariffs. But as Mike Berners-Lee explains in detail in ‘How Bad are Bananas’, the benefits of a renewable tariff are fairly minimal; given a finite pool of electricity available, my use of notionally-renewable electricity simply displaces the use of high-carbon electricity to someone else, with no overall benefit. So the idea that this somehow means you have gone “zero-carbon” is dangerously misleading. On the other hand, it would be beneficial if you charged your car at off-peak times, when the most inefficient power stations are off-line, and maybe there is even excess capacity in the grid (from renewables/nuclear) which you could use up.
3) On a related point, on page 50, Simon Bowens boasts of using home-generated 100% green electricity to charge his car. Well technically that may be true, but if it were not charging his car, his home-generated electricity would be going into the grid, and displacing high-carbon electricity. In fact, it would be much greener to instead charge his car overnight (off-peak), as already discussed. Though this would cost him more money, as there is a perverse incentive which means that you get no financial benefit from sending your home-generated power to the grid rather than using it yourself.
4) On page 26, you sum up by saying that “mass transport is generally better than personal transport, but occupancy levels matter ...” Well no. Scheduled mass transport (buses/trains) is always better than personal transport. The bus is going anyway, so if I choose to boycott it because it is under-occupied, and instead take my car, I make no significant savings to the bus’s carbon footprint, but add the extra emissions from my car. There may be policy arguments to scrap routes that are not well used (and there may also be good reasons to keep them), but if the routes are running, they will always be a better environmental option than taking a car, however full and efficient it may be. It is also good to be a role model and support the culture of using public transport.
Derek Langley, by email.
1) Fair point. A rather over-simplified quoting from Chris Goodall’s ‘How to live a low carbon life’ and easy to misunderstand. Will modify the online version.
2) See the reply above.
3) Perhaps. Though if his home-generated electricity was going into the grid, he would presumably be running a petrol car to get to work etc. It is possible to overthink this stuff!
4) You are, of course, correct that, typically, personal transport emissions (e.g. car) are worse than taking scheduled public transport. However, it is important to be mindful of occupancy levels (especially transport operators and route-subsidising authorities) when considering new services. There will clearly be a modelled calculation of how much CO2 is likely to be removed (from cars, motorbikes, taxis, etc.) by putting on a bus service.
Why not Renault?
Thank you for an excellent read in your most recent issue of Ethical Consumer on sustainable transport. It was most interesting, full of useful information clearly written. One thing that intrigues me is that you did not seem to like the Renault Zoe though it was in your top 30 Green Cars. It is modestly price at £13,443.00, is electric with a range of 169 miles; almost too good to be true. Is there something I missed as I would like my next purchase to be an electric vehicle and the cost puts me off? I admit I have not been on the website and take a rather lazy approach to decision making.
Peter Hirst, by email
Ed: It was mainly less good environmental reporting which led to its lower mark. Most of the car manufacturers were in the ‘heavily criticised’ range with an ethiscore of between 4 and 6.5. Differences at this level are pretty marginal, so a Renault Zoe would not be a bad choice either.
I have just received the latest edition of EC magazine. As you usually only enclose publicity for ethically backed organisations I was surprised to find an advertising leaflet for Camphill Community Charity enclosed. Are you aware of the present controversial radical management changes that are being proposed for this ‘charity’? Private Eye are currently investigating this disturbing proposal that is cause for concern (see current and past editions for details).
Angela Smith, by email
Ed: Camphill Village Trust runs communities in which people with learning disabilities co-habit with others, who were previously volunteers. Our understanding is that it was told by the Charities Commission and HMRC that volunteers needed to become employees. Residents objected to the way the transition was handled and behaviour of the management, resulting in a court case. In early July a settlement agreement was reached which included an agreement on the principle of one beneficiary one vote, meaning that every resident will now have a voice in how the charity is run. “This is a big result for us,” according to Action for Botton, a support network for some of the residents.