George Monbiot makes some useful points in his article bemoaning the influence of the lobbying power of the motor industry (We must break the car’s chokehold on Britain, 2 August). He proposes a modal transport shift to more coach travel and investment in nuclear power plants to power our electric cars. He ignores completely, as usual, the solar option with smaller electric cars and electric bikes and charged by photovoltaics on homes, at work and in public places. In 1993, I bought Hannibal, the 750kg fibreglass Kewet El Jet electric car that we used for a decade to take the children to school, go shopping and to train and bus stations. This first British solar car was largely powered by the 4kWp PV roof on my Oxford ecohouse. Monbiot also ignores the huge trend towards using electric bikes that can be easily solar charged at home or work. We love our cars and bikes, but the trick is to make them much smaller, lighter and solar powered, used locally and to connect with public transport systems for longer distances, so decrying any need for building inevitably toxic new nuclear power stations at all. Car size does matter now if we, as a society, are serious about surviving safely into the 22nd century, so let’s have less of Jeremy Clarkson on TV and more solar-powered Good Lives. It’s the mindset that has to change first, then the hardware.
Emeritus Professor Sue Roaf
• George Monbiot and several of your readers (Letters, 28 July and 31 July) have drawn attention to the folly of the government’s 2040 initiative. It does not need 2020 hindsight to see that the demands on electricity generation will rocket in order to support a nation using only electric cars. Where will this electricity come from and at whose expense?
What is still perplexing is Mr Monbiot’s continued support for nuclear power. Has he overlooked the massive clean-up and decommissioning bills which are accumulating? Is he dismissing nuclear accidents as inconvenient truths? And relying on the “burial” method for centuries to come? Nuclear (at least the fission sort) is still only an interim solution at best. There is only one way that an energy budget can be balanced in the long term without polluting: through renewables. Rather than consider whether to support electric cars or nuclear, we should install as much renewable generation as possible and perhaps, for once, live within its limits.
A real joined-up policy would invest in expanding a nationalised rail network and encourage more people to travel by train than car. Two-way rail lines take up far less countryside than six-lane highways. Transporting goods too can be streamlined, with local depots handling the shorter distribution distances required while reducing the number of lorries on our roads – which might be better served by a nationalised postal service than fragmented companies competing unnecessarily: prices never seem to fall as a result of so-called competition.
But on one point I can agree with Mr Monbiot: we are unlikely to see an ambitious plan for national infrastructure planning from governments focussing only on five-year election cycles.
Dr John Ellis
• I read with interest a recent letter from Colin Read (31 July), who insisted that electric cars were shifting pollution from the car tailpipe to power stations. First, as an investor in energy, I would kindly point out that the efficiency of converting energy from one big engine, versus 1,000,000 small engines, is significantly different due to economies of scale.
Second, the shift assumes that electric grids will continue to cater to peak demand. Currently, we are unable to store energy once it is generated from power stations – fossil fuel or renewable alike. But electric grids will in the next three to five years start to cater towards average demand, because of the innovation in energy storage. The exciting prospect is a 24/7 renewable electric grid, which energy storage makes possible. You get the efficiency of a grid system and the cleanness of renewables in one, and cheaply. A specific type of storage – liquid metal batteries – offers the greatest chance of commercial success, not least due to the short lifespan and dangers of lithium batteries.
The greatest impediments to this are no longer scientific or commercial but political. UK government employees, not your typical risk takers by virtue of their employer, risk credibility when presenting innovation – concerning, when 42% of UK GDP is decided by government spending. Given the choice between making a comparatively risk-free decision over Hinkley Point C, and the decision to deploy new technology, which would you choose?
Of course, the answer is to build both and then gradually shift to renewable energy, but the speed of this graduation, decided by how much risk the mandarins are willing to take, is what will determine whether we shift pollution from tailpipes to power stations.
• With almost 30% of lorries on our roads totally empty and average HGV loading only around 50%, sorting out freight transport can be part of the road transport solution. In order to get better efficiency from HGVs, instead of the current old-fashioned time-based system which neither measures the actual miles driven nor the full economic, safety and environmental impact of the HGV traffic, the government should introduce a distance-based lorry charging system. This measure could incentivise better utilisation of lorries, thus reducing lorry miles, crashes and pollution. Furthermore, it would also make it easier for rail freight, the safer, sustainable alternative, which reduces road congestion, to compete; one large freight train can remove up to 136 HGVs.
Freight on rail manager, Campaign for Better Transport
• During weekdays unused cars line suburban streets. At weekends they choke town centres. Cars have become a status symbol rather than a sometime convenience. Many citizens are duped into undertaking the huge often unnecessary expense involved in car ownership even when adequate public transport is readily available. Often car ownership with the concomitant abuse of energy and resources would properly be a cause of shame rather than pride. As George Monbiot says, it is time to put the focus on cycling. This means designing our town centres to discourage cars and support bikes. It means park-and-ride schemes, frequent and flexible bus services, bike design for the elderly as well as the young, and pedestrianisation of town centres. Cars are expensive, polluting and dangerous, and dictate the design of towns to accommodate machines instead of people. Time to start designing our town centres for the benefit of citizens, not machines.
• The government is pressing ahead with its HS2 project at a cost of £60bn to be completed in the early 2030s. At the same time it has just announced a policy of phasing out diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040. Are there any projections available of the impact of this ban on traffic volumes? It seems likely that we will end up with a reduction in the number of vehicles on our roads, particularly motorways. As there are currently two motorways from London to Birmingham, why isn’t one of these converted into the HS2 route? This would slash the project’s costs and avoid some of the major environmental impacts of the current plan.
• While overhead electrification is expensive in both cost and time, why is consideration not given to the “third rail” electrification which powers most of the railways in the south-east plus the very reliable Mersey Rail trains around Liverpool. Installing a third rail can’t be as expensive as building gantries and pylons. The rail industry needs to look at other alternatives, including having trains with the ability to obtain power from more than one source.
• “Garden cities encouraged long journeys to work” declares Simon Jenkins (We’re addicted to travel. And we need to be cured, 3 August). That is the direct opposite of the truth. The central principle of the garden cities, and of their successors, the postwar new towns, was that there would be sufficient suitable employment for residents locally, so that they would not need to take long journeys to work. This was seen as an essential factor in allowing communal life to develop healthily.
That eminently sensible principle has been largely eroded over the years by the dysfunctional way our national economy has proceeded, with the result that a far higher proportion of the people of such towns have been forced to spend much of their lives travelling long distances to work. But that should never be blamed on those who envisaged and developed these towns.
• Join the debate – email email@example.com
• Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit gu.com/letters