A Beginner’s Guide to Electric Vehicles

Climate change is being driven by burning fossil fuels. Electric Vehicles use electricity instead of petrol/diesel  and increasingly the UK electricity supply is being generated from renewable sources. If you have solar panels at home you can charge your car 100% fossil-free. By driving an EV you are encouraging industry to get off fossil fuels and put their financial resources into developing clean technologies. You are also helping to reduce air pollution which is a major cause of illness and premature death (and no, EVs don’t give off more brake dust than normal cars as they hardly use their brakes). 

Before we get into car specs, it is worth de-bunking the myth that the carbon ’embedded’ in the manufacturing of EVs is higher than emissions from their fossil fuelled equivalents.  It is true that electric cars need more energy in their manufacture, however, due to their much higher efficiency and their ability to run on electricity generated from renewable sources, this deficit is paid back within a few years of average mileage driving. Electric cars in Europe emit, on average, almost three times less CO2 than equivalent petrol or diesel cars. 

This episode of Radio 4’s “More or Less” (listen from 16min 10sec) investigated the relative climate impact of electric cars vs petrol/diesel powered ones. The conclusion is that within 2-3 years average mileage the carbon emissions of an EV start to become less than those of the traditionally fuelled one. From that “break-even” point onwards, the fossil fuelled car goes on emitting yet more climate damaging exhaust emissions for the rest of its 10-12 year life.
Even if you have a relatively new petrol/diesel car, from a climate point of view it would be better to switch to electric if you are able, since that newish diesel will be bought by someone with an even older, less efficient, higher polluting diesel and so on down the chain.
As the UK’s electricity grid decarbonises yet further towards zero carbon in the 2030’s or if you can charge your EV from your own solar panels, the break-even time will come down to maybe just 12 months.

Beginner’s Guide to Electric Vehicles


Although EVs are typically more expensive to buy, their running costs are much lower so, particularly for those who drive a lot, they can be much cheaper overall. There is no road tax and “fuel” costs for EVs can be 1-2p per mile if you charge at home on an off-peak tariff (Octopus Go, 5p per kWh for 4 hours overnight which is enough to add 80-100 miles to your range).  Brakes last longer because most “braking” is done by turning the electric motor into a generator, which has the added advantage of recharging the battery as you slow down or go downhill.  Annual services are cheaper, even at main dealers because there are no filters or oils to change.

If you are able to buy or lease the car through a business, you may be able to benefit from very low benefit-in-kind rates (0% this tax year, rising to 1% from April and 2% in 2022). 

What is the mpg equivalent?  

The most commonly used measure is Miles per kWh.  Some manufacturers will quote Wh per mile or kWh per 100 miles.  Most EVs will do between 3 and 5 miles per kWh.  A kiloWatt-hour (kWh) is the “unit” that you are charged around 15p for, on a typical electricity tariff.  So, on a standard tariff, you will pay between 3 and 5p per mile.  If you swap to an off-peak tariff, where rates can be 5p per kWh, you would pay as little as 1p per mile.


Government grants of up to £3,000 on the purchase of low emission vehicles are already included in the price by most dealers/manufacturers quote their prices after the grant, so just look at the bottom line.
The Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme funds up to 75% of installation cost. You have to use a registered installer but you do get a 3 year guarantee with the scheme which you wouldn’t if just using a local electrician. There are a range of charge point options with prices starting about £450. You can claim this grant on 1 or 2 chargers (if you have 2 EVs – doesn’t matter if they are new or second hand). If you buy or lease a new EV, there might be a special offer of a free or discounted charger included in the price.


The ev-database.uk publishes realistic ranges for all EVs (manufacturers quoted mileage ranges aren’t always acheivable). It will be lower in winter cold temperatures than in summer. But you also have some control; as with any car, your right foot has a lot to answer for.  Drive gently and at moderate speeds and you will go further.  One significant difference between ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars and EVs is that EVs tend to be more economical around town than on the motorway, (though this isn’t true for all models).  

Most new cars sold in 2021 have a reliable range of at least 140 miles.  Older second hand models may be as low as 60-70 miles but if, your commute is only 10 miles each way, this doesn’t matter. It is also worth knowing that the US EPA range rating is normally more accurate than the European WLTP (and NEDC range is a joke, take 20-30% off for a realistic estimate).

Charging Your Battery

The most important point is that you can charge anywhere there is an electrical socket; you just need the right cable. There are 3 ways to charge (see explanation of kWh, AC and DC electricity current, and charger cable info in the Glossary below):
1. Normal AC 3-pin 13amp 3kW plug (this is the slowest charge but Christopher uses this to charge his Leaf overnight at home).
2. AC home “charger” at 7kW.  
3. Rapid DC “chargers” at 50 – 250+ kW on motorways and petrol station forecourts. 
How fast can I charge?  
  • The best way to compare the charging rate of different cars is “miles per hour“.  This takes into account both the electrical charge rate and the efficiency of the car.  Take the electrical charge rate in kW and multiply by the efficiency of the car in miles per kWh and you will get miles per hour of charge e.g. a 7kW supply to a car that can drive 5 miles per kWh will give you a charging speed of 35 miles per hour.  The same supply to a car that only does 3 miles per kWh would give a charging speed of 21 miles per hour.
  • Every car has a limit to the electrical charge rate it can accept, this will be quoted separately for AC and DC charging.
    • AC charging speed is typically 7kW, though older Nissan Leaf is limited to 3kW, some Teslas can accept 22kW and the first two generations of the Renault Zoe can accept 43kW (though they don’t accept DC charging).
    • DC charging speed for an EV bought in 2020 or later should be at least 100kW.  Some cheaper models have a lower limit and some premium models can accept 250kW or even more.  Older models are often limited to 50kW.
Charging away from home
As with petrol stations where you can fill up at Shell, BP, Tesco or any one of the others, there are many different EV charging networks.  Some are run by local councils or are in private car parks, some by new businesses like Instavolt and some by fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP who are busy installing chargers at their petrol stations.  The best way to find a charger and plan your route is with the Zap-map app.  All new Rapid (DC) chargers are now required to accept contactless debit card payments and older chargers are being updated to support this.  You can get discounted charging rates on some charging networks by using their app.
Cost of charging 
The cheapest and most convenient option is to charge at home overnight with an off-peak tariff which will cost 5p per kWh   Government grants are available to install a charger at your home.
Charging at DC Rapid chargers will typically cost around 35p per kW but a lot of public car parks have AC chargers that are free to use (for example, Parkway in Newbury).  If you are lucky you may also be able to charge at work.

What Make and Model of EV? 

Most car manufacturers now offer EVs. See nextgreencar.com or ev-database.uk website for the latest models. See this Fully Charged review of every model available in the UK (Feb 2021)
Buy new or lease?
  •  If you can buy new or lease you have a lot of options (almost all with 150+ mile ranges) from small cars like the Seat Mii, through medium sized Renault Zoe/Peugeot 208/Vauxhall Corsa/Nissan Leaf/Hyundai Kona/Kia e-Niro/VW ID-3 to larger Volvos, Teslas, Mercedes, etc.
  • Christopher recommends any of the Hyundai or Kia for best efficiency and range as well as the Renault Zoe.  The MGs have a bit less range but also quite a bit cheaper with dealer discounts available that you probably won’t get from Kia/Hyundai.
  • Slightly bigger cars like the 2nd generation Nissan Leaf (40kwh) or Hyundai Ioniq (28kwh) will cost under £20k for about 130-150 mile ranges.
Second-hand/low budget
  • If you are buying second-hand or on a tight budget, your options are, for now, more limited.  A good starting point would be an original Renault Zoe with around 70-80 miles of range for £5,000 (but you do need to add about £50 per month for the battery lease – think of it as a warranty and it doesn’t seem so bad).  
  • Autotrader will allow you to filter a search by Fuel Type: select “Electric” and see what comes up. Hyundais and Kias are very good choices as they have good warranties and are very efficient.

Where to Buy?

Quite a few second hand car dealers specialise in electric cars now:
cleevelyev.co.uk (Cheltenham)
drive-green.co.uk (Bristol)
eco-cars.net (Orkney)
gogreenautos.co.uk (new and second hand EVs, based in Abingdon).

New cars to buy/lease from the dealer include:
MotorLux Mazda (Newbury) EV MX-30
MotorLux Ford (Wantage) Mustang Mach-E

Leasing companies that specialise in electric cars:
octopusev.com are trialing a Powerloop system in the south east of England that allows you to run your house from the car battery,
There are some quirky businesses starting up that are somewhere between leasing and car hire – sort of long term hire with all costs included (insurance etc).  Probably more expensive than leasing but no deposit and short minimum commitment and then rolling month contract.  So if you can’t decide what you want, or the car you want isn’t available yet, this might be a stop-gap solution.
Onto charge £339 per month for a Renault Zoe 40kwh (but this does include maintenance and insurance); to lease (PCH) the same car is £204 per month, but a £1,800 deposit is required and a minimum four-year term. 

Issues you might have heard about

What about hybrids? If you do consider a hybrid, it should be a plug-in (PHEV), otherwise all the energy to drive the car is from fossil fuels. Some people consider them to be the worst of both worlds; the high up-front costs of a battery and the high maintenance costs of a ICE.  For some they are the best of both; low fuel cost and big range when you need it.  Self-charging hybrids are a marketing fantasy to help Toyota sell inferior cars!  If they are as good as Toyota claim, why did they make this lexus.co.uk/car-models/ux-300e/   
Lithium mining is an environmental disaster – no form of mining is good, but at least the lithium will be recycled.  Try recycling petrol or diesel after it has been used in a car. Oil extraction is already an environmental disaster, even ignoring the end result of burning the fuel. You just need to remember the Exxon Valdez, the Deep Water Horizon, the Niger Delta…
Cobalt in batteries is mined by children – there is clearly an issue in some countries, but this represents a small (single digit) percentage of cobalt production worldwide. If you are buying a new car, ask to see evidence of responsible sourcing of all materials, not just cobalt. Electric car battery designs are evolving to use less cobalt and as with Lithium, it can be recycled at the end of the battery’s life. Compare this to the use of cobalt in oil refining to remove sulphur where a small amount remains in the fuel and is burnt in the engine…
Efficiency – a litre of petrol or diesel contains roughly 10kWh of energy, so a car that can average 50mpg will use about 45kWh to drive 50 miles, or about 1.1miles per kWh. Even the most inefficient EV will manage 2.5 miles per kWh and the best will do 5 or more…

Local Electric Vehicle Q & A discussion hosted by HEAT (Hungerford Environmental Action Team) and WBCAN (West Berkshire Climate Action Network) February 2021:


EV – Electric Vehicle – used here to mean a pure or battery only EV, but can be used more widely to refer to any vehicle which is partly or fully propelled by electric motors.  Some examples:
BEV– Battery Electric Vehicle (aka pure electric)
HEV – Hybrid Electric Vehicle, no plug so all energy comes from fossil fuels, but can drive on the electric motor at low speeds and recover energy to the battery under braking.
PHEV – Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, does have a plug and a nominal electric only range.  Often only 20 or 30 miles.
REx – Range Extended Electric Vehicle – BMW i3 or Vauxhall Ampera are the only common ones – similar to a PHEV but the car is always driven by and electric motor, and the engine is only used as a generator to top-up the battery if needed.
FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle aka Hydrogen car.
EVSE – Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment: the wall box (or post) that you connect your car to to charge.  Commonly called the car charger (but this is not technically correct).
Froot – front boot (aka frunk) – some EVs have space under the bonnet for storage.
Frunk -– see Froot.
ICE – Internal Combustion Engine, ie a petrol, diesel or LPG engine.
kW or kWh – kiloWatt (kW) is power, kiloWatt-hour (kWh) is energy (in science this is normally measured in Joules). If you think of water flowing from a tap into a sink, kW is the flow rate and kWh is the volume of water in the sink.  The sink will fill up faster if you have more flow (kW) but you can get the same volume (kWh) with a lower flow over a longer time.  e.g. 50kW for 30 minutes = 25kWh; 5kW for 5 hours = 25kWh. kWh is the unit of electricity used to measure the “size” of a battery. This is what your electrical meter measures and what you pay for.  Your unit rate is typically 14-15p unless you have economy-7 or a smart or off-peak tariff.
Type 1 – Japanese/US standard plug for AC charging EVs (has 5 pins).  Some early EVs sold here (such as the first generation Nissan Leaf) used this connector.  Only found on the car end of the cable.
Type 2 – European standard plug for EV AC charging (has 7 pins).  Most EVs sold now use this plug.  All UK AC untethered charging equipment uses a Type 2 socket.
AC or DC. Alternating Current (AC) is the type of electricity that is supplied to your house.  Direct Current (DC) is the type of electricity that you get from batteries, or from something like a phone charger.  Almost all EVs can be charged either from an AC or a DC supply (though some older or cheaper EVs can only accept AC).
AC charging is most commonly used at home, at work, on streets or in public car parks, where your car will be charging for several hours.  The equipment is cheap, small and easy to install; you can even use a normal 3-pin plug as the AC supply.  When you charge from an AC supply, there is a component in the car called the “charger” which converts the AC supply to DC which can then be used to charge the battery.
The “charger” – although the box on the wall that you plug your car into is commonly referred to as the charger, this is not correct.  The box on the wall is an EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) and the “charger” is the circuitry in the car that converts the AC electricity that you supply to the car into DC that is used to charge the car battery.  The charger has a maximum amount of current that it can convert from AC to DC, so this will limit the charging speed.  My old Nissan Leaf is limited to 12.5A (or 3kW) whereas most newer cars can handle 32A (or 7.2kW).  Some cars offer a faster charger as a factory fit option.
DC charging is faster (known as Rapid Charging) because it can bypass the charger in the car and charge the battery directly.  DC charging equipment is big, expensive (>£10,000) and difficult to install (it needs a larger power supply than a typical house).  You would normally find DC charging equipment at motorway services and near major roads.  However, both BP and Shell are installing them in their petrol stations, and charging “hubs” are planned in towns and cities to support adoption of EVs by people who can’t charge at home.
Charging Cables. Most cars come with two cables:one with a standard UK 3-pin 13A plug and another with an EV specific “type 2” plug for EV specific charging points.  The 3-pin plug is your emergency backup, because it is the slowest way to charge your car, but you will always be able to find somewhere to plug it in and Christopher has used one for the last 4 1/2 years to charge his Leaf overnight.
A home chargepoint or EVSE (the box on the wall that you connect your car to) can be tethered (has a cable attached) or untethered (you plug in your cable).  Public AC charge points are always untethered so keep a type 2 cable in the boot (or froot) of your car.
Rapid (DC) charging equipment is always tethered (has its own cable).
If you buy extra charging cables, make sure they match the charge rate and charge connector for your car.


Many thanks to the following who are happy to answer questions about their own experiences. Please comment below and they will respond.

Christopher de Chazal has a Nissan Leaf and a 2015 Tesla Model S. He is also happy to discuss solar panels, heat pumps and green tech in general.

John Downe has owned Renault Zoe and Tesla Model 3.

Richard Foster, Chair of West Berkshire Green Exchange has driven a Nissan Leaf, for over five years.


4 Responses

  1. Good article! However, would anyone be able to write a similar one for E-Bikes?

    Would be grateful if anyone can answer my 3 queries, below:

    1. Why can’t E-Bikes (Electric-Assist Bikes) have regenerative brakes, as a car does?

    2. And could there ever be recharging points for E-Bikes – seems very unfair that cars get most of the advantages here!

    3. Re: Bike Batteries: should one ALWAYS let these run right down, or can one have a half-used Battery that one can top-up when needed?

    NOTE: I don’t drive, so would use a Bike for transport/carrying.

  2. A really helpful summary of battery car life, in the real world. I decided to get a full electric car for a very simple reason – tax!
    By going fully electric, I have no benefit in kind (BIK), no road tax either and if I drive into London (one day maybe!) that’s free too.
    The BIK does kick in at year 2, but only as a 1% charge.
    The driving experience is superb. Excellent acceleration, silence, great handling (because the weight is low and centred between the wheels). Fuel costs are very low, at a few pence per mile. Servicing costs are very low as there’s not much happening.
    The downside? Range and charging. My car isn’t a Tesla, which have better facilities, so I rely on home and work charging, which is great, or charging stations, which aren’t. They are unreliable and limited. Unless you can find a DC charger, you’re also in for a very slow refill. Even with DC it’s at least an hour to get a decent amount back into the battery.
    All in all though, I’m extremely pleased.

  3. We have a BMW 530e plug in hybrid which is excellent for relatively short commutes (up to 23 miles), were only able to choose from certain marques so I choice was limited. We considers the pure electric BMW but it just looked too ugly, Teslas don

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