The changing face of electricity

Thursday 8th December, 2011
For years, ecologists have been encouraging us to turn off electrical appliances that aren't in use. Turn off lights in unused rooms, wash laundry at lower temperatures and ensure you don't overfill the kettle. All because using electricity is bad for the environment.

There’s a massive CO2 footprint for electricity production. Generating just 1kWh of electricity in the UK releases around 525g of CO2 and other emissions into the atmosphere from our coal and natural gas fired power stations.

Naturally, this made me cast a critical eye over the recent boom in electric vehicles (EVs) and I previously examined the hidden emissions that come from driving an EV like the Nissan LEAF after the seemingly constant claims that these vehicles are “Zero Emission”. In fact, just last week, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was making big claims around the CO2 that hasn’t been emitted as a result of people driving the LEAF.

Everybody is jumping on the EV bandwagon now, with many manufacturers having a pure EV or plug-in hybrid on sale or coming to market. Last week I was invited to the Volvo HQ in Gothenburg to see the new V60 plug-in hybrid vehicle. Naturally, I sat there doing sums about how much CO2 would be generated in charging its 11.2kWh battery pack and then put the question to Volvo about how exactly this was going to help the environment. I wasn’t ready for the answer.
It seems that Volvo has done a nice little deal with Swedish electricity provider Vattenfall which will give buyers the option of taking the car along with three years of renewable energy supply. Generated from hydro-electric or wind, this supply has a carbon footprint of approximately zero meaning that, on a full charge, the V60 plug-in hybrid will go up to 32 miles with no CO2 emissions from the tailpipe or the power station. Rather different from simply pretending there aren’t any emissions from the use of electricity.

Perhaps things have changed at Nissan in almost two years since I first looked into EVs? I asked Nissan UK if it was prepared to discuss why it continually fails to acknowledge the carbon footprint of electricity production whilst promoting EVs. I submitted the following questions to its press office:

1) How does plugging something in and leaving it turned on overnight help save the environment?

2) Doesn't this go against the messages we've been receiving from ecologists for years?"

3) Why aren't other products, like tumble dryers and fridge/freezers being marketed as "zero emission" if a car, that uses considerably more power, can be.

4) What is Nissan doing to help reduce the environmental impact of electricity production?

Nissan responded by saying that “Unfortunately, we are not in a position to comment on your questions.”

Meanwhile, Volvo is looking into providing a renewable energy option in all locations they plan to sell plug-in vehicles.

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