Climate change combating technology

26 June 2015

Interview with

Peter Cowley, Entrepreneur and Angel Investor, Cambridge

In the news this week, climate has been a recurring theme. Dutch campaigners Climate changehave won a court case that will order the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 and in the UK, the EU's climate chief Miguel Arias Canete has criticised the Tories' decisions to cut wind farm subsidies. But what can the world of tech offer to the climate crisis? Peter Cowley - technology entrepreneur and investor gave Chris Smith the low down...

Chris - Peter, in a recent study, 63 per cent of all pollutants in the air in London - using London as an example of a big city - they're attributable to transport. So therefore, transport is potentially a big polluter. What realistic alternatives might there be to the fossil fuels that most forms of transport currently rely on?

Peter - Hello. Good evening, Chris. Thank you very much for inviting me again. Yes. In fact, there's another figure floating around that London is likely to be fined as much as 300 million euros a year for pollution particularly in Oxford Street.

Chris - Fined?

Peter - Fined 300 million euros a year.

Chris - By who?

Peter - This is by the EU, for polluting. Possibly the most polluted city in Europe.

Chris - Gosh that's not something to write home about!

Peter - This is primarily diesel fumes from buses and lorries - buses specifically. But there are other alternatives of course. There is the battery, there's hydrogen cars coming on in a very small number. So, do you want me to talk through what the alternatives are? So, if you take some statistics. There are about 500 million cars worldwide of which about 30 million are in the UK. If we use batteries which we hear about more and more - battery technology run vehicles have been around for a very long time, if you remember the milk floats, golf buggies although they're not on the road, and around about of those 500 million, there's about a million who have been sold with batteries so far of which a Japanese manufacturer is the biggest. And some people would've heard of TESLA which has about 10 per cent of the market.

Chris - The American car company. Because they did something quite radical last year which was to announce that they are actually making a lot of their technology off patent so people could begin to work on it, couldn't they?

Peter - Exactly, yes.

Chris - To try to stimulate the market.

Peter - Exactly, yeah and they're also going to be building a very big plant to manufacture batteries which other people can use including other car manufacturers.

Chris - Is this going to make a big dent in the problem though? If we take London's problem and the threat of the 300 million in fines, what sort of a difference could we make with electric cars?

Peter - Electric cars, there's a big issue with electric cars for a number of us who don't live in cities which is called range anxiety where people were worried about running out of power and running out of the batteries being flat. A typical car will be a couple of hundred miles, maybe 250 miles. TESLA working on that on the basis of putting superchargers around the place of which we got only a few in the UK so far which you can fill half charge of the current about 20 - 25 minutes. Compare that with filling your car with petrol which takes 5 or 6 minutes so it will give you another 500 miles. So, one alternative is hybrid where you've got a petrol engine or diesel engine and a battery. Of those, there are about 10 million have been sold worldwide and 300,000 or so are plug-in. I have a plug-in hybrid so that gives the range I want over short distances like 25 miles or so. I can actually run on electric only which is very much cheaper.

Chris - The fact is the figures speak for themselves. The numbers that you have cited for the entire world are a small fraction of the total number of vehicles just in this small island, Britain. So, we've got a long way to go before we're in a position to actually be changing the impact we're making on the climate potentially, haven't we?

Peter - Absolutely, yes and what pressures are going to be on that? There's going to be potential of, when this oil going to run out. At that point then renewables and therefore, battery power will come in. Other pressures come from reducing the amount of pollution there, emissions control which I was talking about with London there. So, it's going to be policy not price of the fuel that's going to make the difference.

Chris - I'm glad you brought up the policy word because I was thinking, well, if I was the mayor of London faced with a 300 million quid bill for my pollution problem, I would be thinking, well, should I invest some of what I'm going to lose in incentivising the industry?

Peter - Correct and they are doing that. There are two manufacturers - one in London, one outside London that are working on a bus which is hybrid. This is reducing the emissions and reducing consumption simultaneously that costs money.

Chris - What is the bottleneck? What's holding this up? Is it just battery technology? Is it just that range anxiety or is there something else fundamentally holding it up or is it just that oil is cheap?

Peter - Well, it's just battery. The big problem with batteries is that although lots of things in our lives seem to be increasing in speed and reducing in size very rapidly, batteries are not. You're getting 5 to 8 per cent increase in battery capability every year. The battery in my car weighs 125 kilos. That is the equivalent of just over a pint of petrol. So, what's a pint of petrol? Less than a kilo.

Chris - You mean the output equivalent.

Peter - The output equivalent, the output, the energy usage from 100... Now, of course it's rechargeable - the battery in my car and petrol, I have to put in again so it's renewable. But that also is huge. I mean, it takes up some luggage space. So, it's a big issue with batteries not getting there but more strongly, it's just inertia in the system. It's the fact that the policies are not being pushed forward. California has been working on it for a long time - a lead-free petrol a long time ago. But it will be a policy thing that pushes it through more quickly.

Chris - So, with your entrepreneurial/investor's hat on, what can we expect to see in the nearest timescales?

Peter - Well, we didn't mention hydrogen much, but not much will happen there because distribution of hydrogen, this is hydrogen under massive pressure so it will be in the electric and hybrid. Electric, they are more expensive. It will take some time before one can make a decision. In my car, my hybrid car was more expensive than a diesel car. It's probably about 30 per cent more expensive. Why did I buy it? Because I'm an early adopter so no, it isn't price that push it. It's the environmental policy decisions by governments

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