Dreaming of electric cars

David and I are both out in Japan to speak at a conference on climate change organised by the United Nations University .

Highlight of the day so far: sitting next to the engineering director at Nissan’s technology planning department over lunch, who (it transpired) knew everything there is to know about electric cars. Back at the end of May, I wrote that electric cars were miles away from commercial roll-out. Well, turns out that they’re much closer to reality than I’d thought. Nissan will be rolling out electric cars in Japan in 2010, followed by the US and (in Europe) Denmark in 2011, and then the rest of Europe in 2012.

Think that’s interesting? Try this: on current electricity prices in Japan, a full charge for the car (enough for about 100 miles of driving) might cost as little as 50 cents . Meanwhile, the cars themselves won’t be much more expensive than conventional combustion engine equivalents either.

All in all, a pretty compelling proposition for consumers with oil prices as high as they are. Which left me wondering two things.

The first is simply: will electric power systems be able to cope with the additional demand if take-up of electric cars is rapid? The UK, like many countries, has seen its capacity margin (the gap between peak electricity demand and the amount of power that can be generated with all power stations running at full tilt ) diminish in recent years. People whose job it is to worry about resilience fret about whether the lights would stay on if there were big outages in generating capacity at the same time as spikes in demand – we came close to such a scenario a few weeks back. If cars that used to run on petrol start running on electric power instead, then that problem gets much tougher.

Second, it will be interesting to see what the carbon savings involved look like. Electric cars are only as green as the kind of generating capacity used to charge them up. If the power’s from wind or nuclear, then they’re fabulously clean; if it’s from coal, then they might be even dirtier than petrol cars. So if electric cars do end up adding lots more demand on power grids, governments and power companies had better get a move on with installing low carbon generating capacity if they want them to be a blessing rather than a curse.

All in all, it’s exciting that electric cars are so close – but the power sector must be biting its fingernails.

Update: Sam Roggeveen has more on both of these issues.