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Letters to the editor: volume 18, issue 6

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In the July 2023 issue of E&T, readers the discuss challenges of electric vehicle ownership, the part that smart meters can play in regulating energy markets and more.

Infrastructure isn’t the only problem with EV charging

A news story in the June 2023 issue of E&T, ‘Demand for electric vehicles slows as public chargers remain elusive’, touches on the slow-down in demand for EVs in the UK due to lack of infrastructure. Having recently bought a Nissan Leaf, which I am pleased with, I have set about experimenting with my local charging network, with mixed results.

Quite often you have to download an app, then get it to work. If you are desperate enough you can telephone a help line, where you will be greeted by some music and a voice telling you where you are in a queue. Success from this point onwards is still hit and miss.

Supermarkets incentivise shopping by offering charging facilities in their car parks. A word of caution though: parking restrictions still apply, along with the penalties, so keep one eye on your watch and the other eye on how far you think you can travel in between charges. Also, revise your mathematical knowledge on how to convert mileage, battery capacity, charge time and kWh interchangeably in order not to become stranded in the middle of nowhere.

I have incurred two car parking fines while trying to negotiate supermarket charging points, both because I inadvertently overstayed the limit. On one occasion I needed a little bit more charge for my journey ahead. Two weeks later I received a demand for £90. The other time I overstayed the limit because I couldn’t figure out how to stop the charger and couldn’t get the charger lead out of the car socket because it was locked in place. I had a 30-minute phone call with the help line while we messed about trying to get it released and received another £90 fine.

In my petrol days I managed to pull up, fill up my car and pay for it without the use of an app. There was also no requirement to buy a parking ticket or adhere to a time limit. There are actually charging systems where you can simply swipe your debit card, charge your car up, stop the charge and drive away. How easy is that?

The article points out the problem with elusive chargers but there is a greater systemic problem involving several different charging systems, apps, payment methods, supermarkets, private parking enforcers and different cars using different systems.

I love the car though.

Ian Charlton IEng MIET

By email

EV worth the switch, despite charging ‘shambles’

When I first got my little Fiat 500e, the home electricity tariff was 15p/kWh. It’s now 31.8p/kWh, still cheaper than filling up my previous petrol Fiat 500. Overall, I have saved around £100 per month in fuel. However, it’s only recently that I have ventured up to the North East from where we live in Manchester and there are some issues.

First, connection points to charge up are a bit of a shambles. Every man and his dog are installing connection points and there appears to be no government strategy, no national UK map, no pricing policy (or cap) etc. App for one, different app for another, website for another and so on.

Secondly, public charge points are expensive, twice the cost of charging my car at home. Once energy tariffs fall, as they are expected to do, you can bet the public tariffs won’t.

Most new EVs now have a much bigger mileage range, which means there may well be less need for charging at services. All these charging stations now being erected could end up being a white elephant unless the hook-up tariff is lowered and capped to an extent.

I was sceptical about EVs, but my Fiat 500e is a wonderful car and definitely worth the switch. One less polluting car on the road.

Antoni P Rivans CEng MIET

By email

How to give smart meters a real role

Arthur Haythornthwaite’s thoughts on smart meters (Letters, June 2023) are very timely as we consider internal energy markets and the inevitable arrival of variable-tariff energy. The time for energy companies to share their own variable-tariff climate with customers has arrived. If the utilities had been able to do so, there need not have been so many company failures.

The smart meter is the only connection point between utilities and customers. If variable-tariff energy is offered to users, they will need to become smart customers. Smart customers need to be able to use power when it is cheap and avoid peak tariff times as shown on the smart meter display. This sounds like a chore, but the basics are not onerous if the smart meter display is in view.

If a smart customer has a battery and an inverter, there are benefits for the user and for the supply company. First, the user can choose whether to use battery power or mains; secondly, high current use can be timed appropriately; thirdly, cheap energy may be stored and fed back to the grid during peak times. If the customer can act to level the load, they can sell enough battery energy at high-tariff times to make the final bill zero. Power cuts can be avoided. The utility may wish to finance the battery and the inverter and put this on the bill. AI may make this process automatic, but new user habits will be needed, and the smart meter would have a real role at last.

Mark Scibor-Rylski FIET

By email

July 2023 E&T Letters Section Cartoon For Website

Image credit: E&T

PVC should not be demonised

Conor McGlone’s article in the June 2023 issue of E&T investigating the consequences of February’s derailment in Ohio of a train carrying large quantities of vinyl chloride (‘The Poison Plastic: Why Calls are Growing for a Ban on PVC’) correctly points out the material’s carcinogenicity classification. However, it gives no indication of the levels of exposure that give rise to the stated effects.

The acute toxicity of vinyl chloride, which can induce anaesthesia, is exceedingly low. An angiosarcoma register developed in Europe in the 1970s shows that sites operating at the revised occupational exposure level of three parts per million (now one part per million) created no additional cancer risk to employees. A publicly available REACH dossier includes summaries of all the carcinogenicity studies and conclusions.

Whilst lead and cadmium were used to give thermal stability for demanding PVC applications in the past, they are no longer used. The article also claims phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which is not reflective of many in use today. Four phthalates are regulated in Europe as endocrine disruptors and these have been replaced by high molecular weight phthalates or alternatives that are not classified as hazardous. Rubber ducks are frequently not made of PVC, but if they are, they are made without plasticisers like phthalates.

The PVC used in building materials and water pipes involves rigid, immobile polymeric networks that cannot ‘leach’ into anything. If the article was referring to PVC additives, rigid PVC is highly effective at retaining them, and any substance of concern used in materials in contact with drinking water must be assessed under the EU Construction Products Regulation and pass a suite of migration tests. Vinyl chloride is regulated in drinking water, both in Europe under the EU Drinking Water Directive and in the USA. It is one of many substances for which water companies must test, and levels must be below 0.5 parts per billion.

The transportation of hazardous chemicals by rail is a topic that is worthy of serious and detailed investigation but this article missed the opportunity to stoke serious debate.

Philip Law, director general, British Plastics Federation

By email

[Conor McGlone replies: The article focused on US policies around hazardous chemicals, which differ from UK and EU regulations. For example, in the EU, the deadline for the voluntary removal of lead stabiliser from PVC was 2015. In May 2023 the European Commission extended the ban on lead in PVC to imports. Cadmium stabilisers were also phased out in the EU by 2007. However, these restrictions are not in force across the US, where the use of lead in plastics has not been banned and cadmium is still being marketed as a heat stabiliser for PVC on websites.]

Motor sports’ green credentials

As a lifelong motor sports fan, in particular Le Mans and endurance racing, I must disagree with Dickon Ross’s suggestion in his editor’s letter in the June 2023 issue of E&T that the race is “not very green at all”. The sport has come a long way in reducing its impact on the environment and Le Mans has been at the forefront of that. From LPG to biodiesel and soon hydrogen power, the race has pioneered alternative fuels and electric propulsion more than any other major race you could think of.

This sort of comment gives motor sports a bad name and encourages extremists to disrupt these events. We all saw what happened at Silverstone last year; Le Mans is much bigger and run mainly on closed roads with very little in the way of security fencing. Heaven forbid what might happen if there were to be an illegal track invasion there.

Mark Atkins


Time to raise awareness of hydropower

I was delighted to see the article on tidal energy, ‘Turn the Tide’, in the March 2023 issue of E&T. However, I take issue with the remark that engineers don’t know how to make a turbine work in salty water – engineers have been putting propellers on sea-going ships for hundreds of years.

For a very long time there does seem to have been some sort of conspiracy to hold hydropower developments back. Media reports on ‘green energy’ always speak of ‘wind and solar power’ and power from water is never mentioned. I fully support Stuart MacArthur’s letter in April’s E&T suggesting we should be doing much more to make the general media, the public and politicians more aware of this valuable natural resource.

Brian Hannam CEng MIET

By email

Importing engineers won’t solve skills problems

Reports of a shortage of skilled engineers in the UK rarely define what is meant by ‘skill’. One reason for shortages, however, is that youngsters are finding it easier to earn degrees in subjects other than engineering, for which one needs A-levels in maths and science subjects. Engineering requires far more dedication and hard work.

After the Second World War, there was a drive in Eastern Europe to industrialise. Technical secondary schools were set up that were selective of students and taught most normal school science subjects alongside a good number of technical subjects. If one wanted to study, say, medicine afterwards, one had the required subjects, but engineering was the obvious choice. One day of the 54-hour week was spent in school workshops, under the tutelage of skilled craftsmen, learning hand and machine skills. Eight weeks of the summer holidays were spent working in factories.

In the 1950s, Britain had its own excellent system of thin sandwich courses. Students paid by large companies spent six months at college and six months on industrial attachments. Hence they learned hand, safety and intellectual skills. Most engineers who leave university today have few hand skills, resulting in impractical designs of products. The practical skills and work ethic of yesteryear are no longer taught.

While Britain was a strong industrial nation, there was no shortage of engineers; today there is. Importing engineers from other countries, in some of which no manual skills are taught, will not solve the problem.

George F Corvin CEng MIET

By email

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