Saturday, May 23, 2009

The myth of Richard Pike
An embarrassment for both the RSC and The Register

Richard Pike, the former BP executive turned head of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has written what Andrew Orlowski in The Register describes as "a hard hitting contribution to Research Fortnight". Orlowski goes on to claim that

"Pike says the £250m tax boondoggle designed to induce us to buy electric cars would save less than 0.01 per cent of UK carbon emissions - yet represents a third of the nation's annual budget of the science and engineering funding council."

Before going on, I feel obliged to note this is an unfortunate way of phrasing this that might easily be misread. The EPSRC budget is ~£750million this year, whereas the putative electric car program the Pike and Orlowski decry costs £250 million in total over 5 years (from 2011, when the DoT expects suitable cars will be available). However, there's rather bit problem with this, specifically that the program doesn't cost £250 million and isn't there to induce us to buy electric cars.

Pike is appalled by "woolly thinking" (as am I, although by a rather different target), warning of "a potential waste of £250 million of public money  to subsidise the purchase of over 50,000 vehicles."

 Oh dear. With 30 seconds on Google we can locate the press release on the program here: the description is "Central to the strategy is an initiative to help put electric cars into the reach of ordinary motorists by providing help worth £2000 - £5000 towards buying the first electric and plug in hybrid cars when they hit the showrooms - which we expect from 2011 onwards." We can see where Pike gets his figure from, he's divided what he claims is the total cost (£250 million) by the upper limit per car (£5000) to obtain 50,000 subsidies.

Unfortunately for Pike's argument: "This funding is included in a £250 million scheme to deliver a green motoring transformation, part of the wider Government support to help consumers and businesses make the transition to low carbon.....The strategy also includes plans to provide £20 million for charging points and related infrastructure to help develop a network of 'electric car cities' throughout the UK and an expansion of an electric and ultra-low carbon car demonstration project on the UK's roads. This project will mean over 200 motorists [!!!] throughout the country will have the opportunity to drive a cutting-edge car and feedback the information needed to make greener motoring an everyday reality." [emphasis mine, and under the circumstances pretty important]

Clearly, this is a measure with a tiny budget, to monitor what electric car drivers use, coupled with a much more expensive -and very sensible- proposal to build infrastructure and charging points. Even this last costs only £20 million over 5 years, a tiny fraction of the DoT spend.

Right, so those figures are just Pike's fantasy, as indeed is the whole "0.01%" thing, should we be any more convinced by the eye-catching claim that the efficiency of the electric car is a "myth", as is their environmentally friendly appearance?

No, I think we should not. Pike claims that, while electric cars are 3-4 times more efficient than petrol cars, the distribution of electricity from the power plant is only 36% efficient, and claim thats "the energy advantage has effectively disappeared". O rly? Accepting arguendo the figures he offers from the academic report - of 20kWh/100km and 80kWh/100km for electric and petrol respectively, this implies that accounting for his 36% efficiency, the electric car still wins, clocking in at 56kWh/100km vs. 80kWh/100km. 

What about carbon emissions? Grid electricity has a footprint of about 500 g per kWh (note we don't have to account for efficiency, as this is already built in to the carbon footprint), so 20kWh/100km implies a footprint of 100g CO2 per kilometer, comparing favourably with the UK average car 168g CO2 per kilometer (MacKay, Without Hot Air, p122, figure 20.9), unless we cherry-pick very small cars.
Note that electrification still wins, even with our present energy mix. As low carbon technologies are only going to make up a larger proportion the mix, the carbon emissions will continue to decrease. Surreally, Pike concedes that in nuclear France the carbon costs are close to zero (although a more intellectually rigorous author might have noted something about manufacture and the lithium supply).

Frankly, this is a massive FAIL for the RSC, and for the rest of us, a cautionary reminder both that an editorial in the house rag is not the same as a peer reviewed paper, and that The Register has real issues with energy policy.

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