Actor and TV presenter Robert Llewellyn shares his insights about the future of electric cars and energy production.
Interview with Robert Llewellyn
Robert Llewellyn is an actor and TV presenter, perhaps best known for his role as Kryten on Red Dwarf. His Internet project Fully Charged discusses electric vehicles and renewable energy and is expanding beyond its origins on YouTube.
From petrol-head to EV enthusiast
Robert confesses that he once loved cars with big petrol engines. He experienced his first ride in a Prius back in 2001, but it took time to reconsider what he was interested in and, by default, promoting. He got his first electric vehicle (EV) in 2009.
He acknowledges there have been teething problems along the way – the lack of a charging infrastructure initially didn’t help – and comments that well-funded propaganda from the fossil fuel industry has attempted to hold back development.
However, Robert describes the current global car market as being at its peak in terms of the internal combustion engine, and says the wider transition to electric vehicles is finally gathering pace. Eventually, as with asbestos, tobacco, catalytic converters and leaded petrol, the corporations will change. For now, Renault, Nissan and Tesla are leading the way.
Electric vehicles are part of a bigger revolution
By thinking of an electric car as a battery and computer on wheels, Robert can see even bigger change ahead in the form of vehicle automation. Having experienced the fully autonomous Nissan Leaf, Robert says “When you go in it, you go ‘alright, fair enough. This stuff works.’” The car performed way better than any driver Robert has ever seen. He expects total adoption of automation by the trucking industry within five years.
“They won’t sell models, they’ll sell mobility”
To be a success, electric cars will need to completely change the ownership model. It’s not just oil consumption that is unsustainable. Regardless of whether there’s enough lithium to supply batteries at the rate the car market is growing, there isn’t enough steel, rubber or plastic to make enough cars. As 90% of cars on the road are not in use 90% of the time, selling a service (as opposed to a car) is the direction manufacturers will have to take.
With a self-driving car you could use it as much as you do now without owning it or having it parked outside your house. You wouldn’t even need to charge it, Robert says. “It will be charged when it turns up at your house because it will have charged itself.” Getting a charging point at your house is still worthwhile though, as he adds, “It’s very obvious that it’s not going to happen overnight.” It's likely to be at least 10 years and possibly 20 before we see a significant change in car ownership.
The existing energy production system has hidden costs
When making the TV series ‘How Do They Do It?’, Robert learnt that oil refineries use so much electricity they have to have their own power stations! One in Pembrokeshire uses the same amount of electricity in a year as Coventry and Leicester. Thus, reducing oil refining would enable the greater electricity consumption needed for more electric cars.
This typifies the ‘invisible’ costs of established technology. Petrol stations are considered a normal part of everyday life, therefore the costs aren’t thought about. Yet Robert points out the energy required to supply petrol stations is “catastrophically colossal”.
Energy companies are starting to embrace change
Financial savings are motivating change in the energy industry. Robert gives the example of solar plants. As with coal and nuclear, initial installation is hugely expensive, but once up and running, solar is much cheaper. No fuel costs, no waste management, no storage and no transportation mean massive savings.
In the case of Pacific Edison, the huge American power company who use coal, nuclear and gas plants to generate electricity, “peak management issues” were overloading the grid. They found the cheapest solution was batteries, and this was in fact Tesla’s first multi-megawatt sized grid battery backup.
Renewable energy production is growing globally
It’s encouraging to see the adoption of renewable technologies “at breakneck pace” around the world. Robert points to China where the rate of solar panel and wind turbine installations is “mindboggling”. The UK is gradually producing more renewable energy too: it is actually the biggest offshore wind generating country in the world, taking advantage of the fact that 40% of all the wind in Europe is around the British Isles.
You can run your house off your car and vice versa
Robert says he doesn’t actually see himself as very ‘green’ and even admits to having an Aga! However, he has made gradual changes. He only has electric cars now, and in his house he has improved the insulation, added solar panels, very good windows and a battery on the wall. As a result, his electricity bill has dropped by about 85%.
This form of domestic energy production and storage represent a big threat to the status quo, which he calls massively inefficient: “We have to subsidise all of the fossil fuel plants to a colossal amount of money to keep them running.” Robert’s house is typical of how current technology can be much more efficient, and he describes how some offices in the UK use similar systems and save hundreds of thousands of pounds a year without using any grid electricity.
Local energy production and storage would be more efficient
The big UK energy companies are actually in favour of producing, owning and selling electricity locally as it would save a lot of money. The price of electricity fluctuates from getting paid to use it, to being fantastically expensive. At peak times it is imported at a higher cost than we ever pay for it, by many thousands of percent.
Robert counters recent claims we’d need ten times more electricity if we moved to local production and storage. More intelligent and regular use would avoid the sudden peaks and troughs that are currently so costly and inefficient.
Volume new builds aren’t designed to be energy efficient
Robert doesn’t hold back about the standard of new houses, which he says are “designed and built by morons!” He laments their individual gas boilers, traditional pitched roofs that don’t face south and lack of solar panels.
Robert cites studies showing you can build an efficient house at the cheapest possible cost where the house produces ALL the energy it needs, emphasising, “the people who live in that house will have free heating and lighting for the life of the building.”
Lower energy homes could make a huge difference
By using systems like the ones Robert has, with solar panels, batteries for storage and electric cars, a house can place about 70% less demand on the grid. While this means very little by itself, application on a much larger scale could have a huge environmental impact. A million houses set up in that way would mean closing down two fossil fuel burning power plants.
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