Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.
The British government has just announced it will ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2040, a promise that follows the French government's plan to impose electric-vehicle purity within the same period. Earlier this month, Volvo said that its entire car production line would be plug-in electric or hybrid by 2019 and Tesla has said it has received $1,000 (U.S.) deposits from more than 373,000 customers for its new Model 3.
If electric-vehicle (EV) technology was the only issue, you might confidently predict that the internal-combustion engine was following the horse. Michael Gove, Britain's Environment Secretary, who made Wednesday's announcement, is convinced that there is no alternative to "embracing new technology" in order to halt the damage to health caused by diesel- and gasoline-exhaust emissions.
Climate change is no longer setting the transport policy agenda. The British government has been successfully sued under European Union laws for its failure to improve air quality in major cities, hence the rush to follow France down a government-electrified highway. While Mr. Gove and his French counterpart may be politically astute, they are probably barking up the wrong technology tree. It's not cool electric cars that will stop us from burning hydrocarbons on the road; instead, we need a bigger and smarter electricity grid. We still don't know how to make this work – the charging mechanism, the surge in power demand at peak times, the spare generating capacity, a vast web of infrastructure on the street and in your home.
Coincidentally, last week, National Grid, the owner of Britain's electricity power lines and gas mains, explained the problem in its 2017 scenario-planning document. Peak electricity demand is currently 60 gigawatts, but in a scenario where most of the car fleet is EV and motorists are free to charge their cars at will, the utility reckons that a further 18 GW of capacity would be needed to meet surging demand. That could be reduced to 6 GW under a more benign scenario where consumers engage in co-operative behaviour and a large proportion of the car fleet comprises shared autonomous vehicles recharged at off-peak hours.
Bur even if motorists can be persuaded to engage in more collectivist behaviour, the domestic electricity grid could not currently cope with widespread EV battery charging. A reasonably powerful battery charger, capable of charging a 90-kW EV in six hours, would probably blow the fuses in an average British home, unless every appliance (kettle, dishwasher etc.) was turned off. Local networks and substations would also have to be renewed and the utility reckons that the only sensible route would not be domestic charging, but a huge network of many thousands of charging stations with multiple 350-kW chargers, capable of filling a battery in 10 minutes. These charging stations would require the infrastructure to handle more than 3 MW of power.
The challenge is daunting and National Grid raises the "chicken/egg" conundrum. How do you transform the car fleet without the charging stations and who will build the stations without a huge fleet of EVs?
That raises the big political question of what role government should play in promoting the electrified economy. If stock-market valuation was the measure, Tesla seems to be doing a good job in replicating Henry Ford's transport revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet, EVs still make up barely 1 per cent of new-car sales in the United States. If the market is left to do the job on its own, without the spur of government regulation, EVs will probably not have their Ford moment and it may explain why Elon Musk, Tesla's founder, has quit U.S. President Donald Trump's council of advisers. The libertarian entrepreneur knows that he needs government help, which this President will not or cannot provide.
It is about liberty and the Tesla founder's problem is that his great innovation is not liberating. Where the internal-combustion engine gave ordinary people freedom to roam, the electric vehicle is confining. It's not just the need for a charging station, which, arguably, is similar to a gas station. Gasoline is fuel in a jerry can, easily transportable and stored. By its very nature, electricity is a closed network that must balance instantaneously or it will fail.
If we want an electric-car fleet (and if we want clean air and low-carbon economies, we have little choice), we need government help and regulation to build the network of smart grids and balanced generation. It can't be done piecemeal or left to market forces. America's experiments with free-for-all power networks ended up with chaos and Enron.
If we want millions of Tesla drivers, we need a highly regulated electricity economy, not the kind of society that Mr. Ford or Mr. Musk would probably have wished for.