It’s early spring in the village of Comrie, nestled in rural Perthshire on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. Birds are twittering in the trees by the River Earn, while sheep make their voices heard in the nearby fields as the first lambs of the season wobble adorably on uncertain legs, exercising their springtime poster-child status.
On the eastern fringes of the village, firefighter Ben Liversedge (46) leaves home for work, settling behind the wheel of his white Volkswagen Golf GTE.
In a stone-built cottage closer to the centre of Comrie, class teacher in specialist provision Alison Ritchie (47) and her husband, geographical imaging consultant John Paul Mason (50), are likewise getting ready to head for work, a matching pair of Nissan Leafs in red and white parked in the driveway, ready and waiting.
Aside from living in Comrie, what these three individuals have in common is that when they turn the keys in their respective ignitions, the rural idyll of their surroundings is disturbed by … absolutely nothing.
Ben, Alison and John Paul are just three of a perhaps surprising number of people here who have turned to electricity to fuel their personal transportation. Surprising, because the notion of electric cars is largely associated with bustling cities and political initiatives aimed at lowering urban air pollution.
In fact, Alison was initially worried before buying their Nissan Leafs that being in a rural area was too much of a risk for an electric car, her concerns driven by range and charging infrastructure. Having done the research, husband John Paul went ahead and bought one in 2016. “I hadn’t been that courageous at the time,” says Alison, adding “But I got used to his.” She then followed suit a year later.
On doing the sums and taking into account incentives provided by the UK and Scottish governments and financing offered by Nissan, the value proposition simply made sense. Moving into her brand-new Leaf from many years driving elderly second-hand cars represented a major shift for Alison: “It just seemed like a transformation in terms of my driving experience and it wasn’t costing me any more,” she says. “Virtually no fuel to pay, no garage bills, no tax, no MOT – just the monthly amount and a clean, green car that’s really nice to drive.”
Performance a deciding factor
For Ben Liversedge, however, it was the performance that attracted him to his two-year-old Golf GTE plug-in hybrid (PHEV). “One of the guys at work had one, so I took it out for a spin and thought ‘wow, this really moves’.”
Ben’s daily commute from Comrie to the fire station on the outskirts of Edinburgh where he is a watch manager is a round trip of 106 miles, mostly on the A9 trunk road and M9 motorway. Unlike Alison and John Paul’s Leafs, Ben’s Golf uses a combination of battery and engine power and can run for an official range of 31 miles on electricity alone, although Ben reckons he gets closer to 26 miles in regular driving and considerably less in cold weather.
Alison and John Paul also identify cold weather as a range killer for their Leafs, which can usually cover around 100 miles on a single charge. Before changing jobs earlier this year, John Paul, too, commuted to Edinburgh every day to work. “I’d been wanting an electric car for about two years,” he says, “and chose the Leaf after I saw an ad on Facebook.”
Nissan offers two battery capacities on its Leaf, which have recently been upgraded to 40 kWh and 62 kWh, offering officially stated ranges of 168 and 239 miles respectively. Back in 2016 when John Paul bought his, the capacities were 24 kWh and 30 kWh. “I test drove the 24 kWh model, driving as I normally would to Edinburgh, and crawled into the garage with absolutely nothing left [in the battery],” he recalls, which sealed his decision for the higher capacity model which offered plenty of range to cover his 60 mile commute. He then plugged it in at work during the day and had a full charge again when it was time to head home in the evening.
Range anxiety makes unfamiliar journeys stressful
However, the phenomenon of “range anxiety” is a very real issue for many EV drivers struggling with the currently patchy state of charging infrastructures. “It’s absolutely brilliant for familiar journeys,” says Alison, adding: “For long journeys, you have to be super organised and know where the charging stations are. You also have to allow a lot more time.” Both have suffered incidents of range anxiety when their charge has been right down to the wire.
Interestingly, their experience with rural charging has been far more positive than with urban charging. “Edinburgh is a complete nightmare. It’s much easier in small rural towns,” says Alison. Charging points in smaller locations are generally far easier to find and, more often than not, operational. On several occasions, they have arrived at city charging points to find them out of service. Availability is another issue. If a charging point is already occupied, a wait of up to an hour could be on the cards or time spent driving around (using up more charge) looking for an available point.
Nevertheless, the Scottish government maintains that Scottish EV drivers are better off than most when it comes to charging facilities. A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said: “Drivers benefit from one of the most comprehensive charge point networks in Europe through ChargePlace Scotland … the average distance from any given location to the nearest public charge point is just 2.78 miles in Scotland – the lowest across Great Britain, where the average is 4.09 miles,” going on to say: “Our overall budget for 18/19 has increased significantly, including additional funds to expand the ChargePlace Scotland network.”
For drivers of PHEVs like Ben Liversedge, range anxiety is not a factor, although Ben finds himself keen to maximise the amount of time spent running in all-electric or hybrid modes. “I would say I drive smoother and more efficiently now,” he says.
Charging with renewable electricity
While Alison and John Paul had a charging point installed at home with the aid of government funding, Ben uses either the charge point at his place of work or one of several available free-of-charge in Comrie and nearby Crieff.
Two miles outside Comrie is Comrie Croft, conceived by owner Andrew Donaldson as a modern-day usage model for rural land that is both ecologically and economically sustainable. As well as camping, hostel, and mountain biking facilities, the Croft also has an expansive function facility that is proving highly popular as a rustic-chic wedding venue. Also with grant assistance from the Scottish government, Andrew installed 65 kW of smart-grid solar panels that cover around 80 percent of the Croft’s total power consumption and supply six charging points for electric vehicles at no cost to users.
Although they produce no local emissions, the ecological sustainability of electric vehicles is heavily dependent upon a number of other factors, including how the electricity is generated in the first place. Andrew’s installation of EV charging points is part of Comrie Croft’s overall ethos of sustainability. However, he notes that, to-date, usage of the vehicle charging points has been relatively low.
According to Scottish Renewables, an association representing Scotland’s renewable energy sector, renewable electricity generation from wind, solar, and hydro power as well as bioenergy is now equivalent to approximately 70 percent of Scotland’s electricity consumption. By the end of 2018, installed capacity had more than trebled.
Uptake still low but rising
A dramatic and sustained increase in sales of electric vehicles would have an impact on that development. However, for now, the uptake of electric vehicles in Scotland and the UK as a whole remains low, with figures from the UK’s SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) showing that battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) accounted for just 0.7 percent of cars registered in the UK in 2018, while plug-in hybrids made up 1.9 percent of the market as a whole. Nevertheless, in the face of a falling UK car market (down by 6.8 percent in 2018), sales of BEVs and PHEVs grew by 13.8 and 24.9 percent respectively. As at February 2019, demand for alternatively fuelled cars (which includes BEVs, PHEVs) has been showing sustained growth for 22 consecutive months.
According to the Scottish government, which derives its figures from UK data, Scotland is bucking the overall trend in the UK with year-on-year growth in registrations of BEVs and PHEVs of 46 percent in Scotland versus 33 percent in the rest of the UK. Transport Scotland puts this down to what a spokesperson referred to as “a bold new vision on ultra-low emission vehicles”, which aims to “phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032.”
For the rural plug-in-vehicle drivers of Comrie, the future is all about how the figures stack up. In the near future, it seems likely that Alison and John Paul will be downsizing to one Leaf instead of two as John Paul’s lease nears its end. Both have changed their jobs recently and one car is now enough to suit their needs. “I’ll never buy another petrol car,” says John Paul, “I’m ideologically committed to electric vehicles.” Alison adds: “We’ve got a charger. We really like electric cars, but we don’t know right now whether we will be able to afford it.”
Although there are an assortment of financial incentives and support available from both the UK and Scottish government (through its Energy Saving Trust agency), the UK government grant of £5,000 has dropped to £3,500 since Alison and John Paul bought their Leafs, and incentives for hybrids are being phased out altogether.
Nevertheless, having been introduced to the idea of electric driving through his PHEV, Ben is now seriously considering an all-electric vehicle as his next car. But, like his Comrie neighbours, it will all come down to choice and affordability.
Visuals: By the author