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by Anthony Patt | professor of Climate Policy - ETH Zurich



Climate change is simple. If humanity continues to pump carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere, the global temperature will rise, and eventually this will unleash an avalanche of harm. Among other things, sea levels will rise by several meters, flooding every coastal city, unless we build seawalls so high that we are living in their constant shadow.
The only way to prevent it is to stop burning fossil fuels entirely, within the next 50 to 60 years, at the same time as we make sure that the world’s forests and soils hold on to the carbon they currently have.



We use primary energy to produce heat, to move things around, and to generate electricity to power all of our lights and gadgets. We need to eliminate fossil fuels from all three areas, but doing so for transportation will be the hardest. Car driving accounts for most of the transportation sector, and people show little desire to stop. A decade ago, many analysts thought we could run those cars on biofuels, but this led to deforestation and rising food prices, and is no longer seen as a serious option. Right now the only promising option is a shift to electric vehicles, EV’s. In the last few years EV sales have been growing, although not at the pace many had hoped for. Do they, and with them our polar ice caps, really have a future?

             
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“Qualche mese fa ho deciso che, dovendo parlare e scrivere in maniera credibile di auto elettriche, la prima cosa da fare era acquistarne una. E vivere in prima persona l’emozione della guida di un veicolo elettrico”. Anthony Patt, docente di Climate Policy all’ETH di Zurigo, parte da questa considerazione (tutt’altro che banale!) per realizzare un articolo di grande contenuto e spessore, proprio perché alterna in maniera molto equilibrata le conoscenze del ricercatore e l’esperienza del semplice utilizzatore.
Alla prova su strada l’e-car si merita una promozione a pieni voti. “Anche i tempi di ricarica sono un non problema. È solo una questione di abitudine: uno arriva a casa la sera e collega la propria auto proprio come fa con un telefono cellulare. Un’operazione che si conclude in tre secondi. E la mattina dopo l’auto ha immagazzinato più energia di quanta normalmente può servire durante una normale giornata”.
Quanto alle alternative green - l’idrogeno applicato alle fuel cell, soluzione particolarmente cara a Toyota, e i combustibili sintetici spinti in particolare da Audi - è un difficile equilibrio tra opportunità e criticità. Nel caso dell’idrogeno, per esempio, occorre prevedere la nascita e lo sviluppo di adeguate infrastrutture (non si può fare il pieno nel box...). Le synthetic fuel potrebbero invece superare questo ostacolo, usando le reti di distribuzione carburante già esistenti. Ma resta da considerare il fattore CO2... “Non bisogna essere degli scienziati del clima - prosegue Patt - per considerare che proprio l’auto elettrica rappresenta una scelta di non ritorno. Basta considerare il fatto che l’efficienza di un motore elettrico è quattro volte superiore rispetto a quello a combustione interna. Oppure, che i costi delle batterie stanno scendendo con una velocità addirittura superiore alle attese”.
Un altro dato incoraggiante? Grazie ad alcune semplici misure incentivanti (non necessariamente in termini economici) lo scorso anno in Norvegia le auto elettriche hanno già raggiunto una quota mercato pari al 12 per cento. E si stima che entro il 2018 potrebbero diventare, senza più alcun aiuto, il punto di riferimento del mercato.
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Why Ev’s make sense
A few months ago I decided that if I were to speak and write intelligently about EV’s, I needed first-hand experience. My wife, two children and I commute 40 km every day to go to school and work in Zurich, Switzerland. Like most others we had taken the train, and the Zurich trains are very crowded. We discovered that driving is faster, far more pleasant, and more flexible.
Buying an electric car for the commute seemed to be the way to make it sustainable as well. I opted for a Renault Zoe, which is the smallest and least expensive five-seat EV on the market. All my previous cars had been Volkswagens, and to be honest I like them better in lots of little ways. But the one area where I am completely satisfied, where I like my new car more than any other I have had, has precisely to do with the fact that it is electric.



The first reason is the obvious one: I care about climate change. Granted, some dirty energy has undoubtedly gone into building my car, though I predict that will change in the future.
In and around Zurich, however, all of the electricity comes from renewable sources, and that means that every time I get in my car and drive it somewhere, I am doing so without guilt. I notice that every time, and I like it.
The second reason is the fun of driving. Acceleration is fun, because it is so fast. Deceleration turns out to be fun too, now that it isn’t wasting as much energy, and I can see how much the brakes charge the batteries. Cornering is fun, because the heavy battery is mounted under the floor, between all four wheels, making the car grip the road especially well. Even sitting still at a red light is fun, because with the windows rolled down and car completely silent, I can hear birds chirping and conversations on the sidewalk.



The third reason is practicality. I had expected my EV’s range, about 200 km, to be a major inconvenience, forcing me to stop to charge it during long trips. It turns out that like almost everybody else I had overestimated the number of long trips I actually take. In fact it is only a few times a year, and so far I have been able to find another car to use. I hadn’t paid attention before, but now I have discovered that almost all of my family’s driving is within 50 km of home. I have yet to charge the EV anywhere other than our own garage.
This turns out to be typical for EV owners. Plugging in the car overnight takes three second, and like charging my smartphone has become an invisible part of my daily routine. Every morning the battery is full, with far more range than I need.



I forget about it, and forget about noticing which gas station in my area has the lowest prices. I don’t go to gas stations anymore. The final reason I like my EV is the price. Before I had bought it, I had worked out that the total cost of owning it would be a little bit less than a comparable car with a combustion engine. It turns out I am driving it more than I had anticipated, and so I am saving more money. Electric motors are almost four times as efficient as internal combustion engines, and so the renewable electricity to power it costs me almost nothing. [...]

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