Issue 299: 2021 11 04: COP 26

4 November 2021

COP 26

The battery question.

By Robert Kilconner

So here we go at last. Cop 26 is upon us and no one really has any idea what will come out of it. There have been some unfavourable auguries to be sure. The Heads of State of China and Russia will not be attending and, less importantly but perhaps at some symbolic cost, our own Queen and the Pope have had to pull out too. Nonetheless the seriousness of the situation must now be apparent to everybody but the remotest of American hillbillies so perhaps there is a good deal going on behind the scenes and the promises for 2030, so much more important than those for 2050 which merely defer difficult measures, will roll in. Let’s hope so anyway.

Let’s hope too that governments take a hard look at some of the practical steps which might help, and in the spirit of that hope we at the Shaw Street would like to make two suggestions of our own.

The first concerns the built-in obsolescence of our mobile phones. The manufacturers put great effort into producing new models each year and making sure that these give the consumer opportunities which were not previously available. It is not these improvements, however, which drive us to buy new phones but the deterioration of the old ones as the batteries become less and less effective with age. If the batteries could easily be replaced, everyone would keep their phones for longer. That of course would be bad for a number of bottom lines in Silicon Valley but it would reduce the number of old phones discarded and on occasion it is the function of government to do things which damage the profits of entrepreneurs. As a first measure, then, the British government should insist that a mobile phone can only be sold in the UK if replacement batteries are easily available.

The second suggestion relates to electric cars. The Government is hoping that these will gradually replace those driven by petrol and by diesel. That will be better for our cities. It will improve the air breathed by our children. It will make England, if not Jerusalem, at least a green and pleasant land. The public broadly go along with this but there is one fly in the ointment. At the moment lithium batteries give a range of a few hundred miles and then have to be recharged, a slow process which would add considerably to the time taken in, say, driving down to Italy. Now one answer to that is to improve the power of batteries but it is folly to rely on technology which does not exist. So let us instead look backwards at a solution which our forefathers would have understood.

If you read Dickens or Thackeray or other great describers of the Victorian scene you will know that many journeys were undertaken by stagecoach. The coaches had exactly the same problem as the electric cars. The horses would gallop for a number of miles and then become exhausted, only available for further use once they had been well rested and fed. One way of dealing with that would have been to interpose long pauses but that would have meant unacceptable delay, so instead the horses were “changed”, that is to say that a new team took over and the old team had plenty of time to recover before they were needed again.

This is an approach which could easily be transposed to cars. Suppose that your car has a range of 300 miles. After 250 miles you would pull into a filling station and they would whip out the old battery and put in a fully charged new one. A further 250 miles on the procedure would be repeated; in each case the old battery would be put on charge to meet the needs of the next traveller.

Of course there are difficulties. The cost of the service would have to cover the depreciation of batteries as well as electricity used. The main issue, however, is that for the system to work car batteries need to be standardised or at least able to be used in all the different types of car on the road. If standardisation was achieved, a system of exchanging batteries would develop without the need for further government involvement.

That then is our second suggestion. The government should legislate to standardise batteries so that they can fit all available models of electric car and to standardise cars so that they can make use of commonly available batteries. And not just our government either. To be successful, such an initiative would have to be trans-European, or better still trans-global. That would require extensive international cooperation so the question is whether it could be achieved. Normally, perhaps, it would be difficult. But with the representatives of all the major nations clustered together in Glasgow with little to do except dine together? Perhaps they could discuss it over the brandy!

Tile Photo by Tim Photoguy on Unsplash

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