The government is on something of a ‘green’ roll at the moment. In the last few days we’ve learnt about plans to give everyone £2,000 towards a new car if they scrap their old one, a scheme to keep traffic flowing better by coordinating traffic lights, and now it’s offering subsidies of up to £5,000 to anyone who wants to buy an electric car.

But not just yet. You’ll have to wait until 2011 and then can only buy one that is on a government-approved list.

Which means that none of the electric or hybrid cars currently available will qualify for one of these grants, raising the concern that anyone who was contemplating going down the electric route will wait a couple of years before doing so and that sales of electric cars will stall as a result.

Critics of the scheme are also pointing out that there’s no guarantee that the sort of mainstream cars which the government says it is aiming this initiative at will be available, even in 2011, and that the amount of money earmarked for this project will only cover about 50,000 cars, which isn’t an awful lot compared to the 30 million on our roads at the moment.

So just what are the pros and cons of electric cars anyway and are they really going to be the way ahead?

The advantages of electrically-powered cars is that they have zero emissions and very low running costs – unless the price of electricity needed to charge them escalates of course, and batteries are likely to last for ten years before needing to be replaced. The downside is that current offerings of electric cars are mainly small, slow and expensive. And there are very few charging points around where you can top them up, though part of the government’s scheme would be to have charging, or ‘juice’, points installed in city streets and car parks. Alternatively you could connect your car to your domestic mains supply and filling stations would have high-voltage charging points to give a long range from a short charge.

But that hasn’t stopped the manufacturers from looking seriously at electric technology and producing vehicles. BMW is supporting the government’s initiative and is developing the MINI-E, which will have a range of around 150 miles on a two-hour charge.

The company is about to embark on a 12-month field trial of the MINI E in Germany and the USA “to evaluate the technical and social aspects of living with an all-electric vehicle in a real world environment”. It also plans to include the UK in this programme.

The MINI E’s engine and transmission drive the front wheels, allowing the car to accelerate seamlessly to 62mph in 8.5 seconds and on to an electronically-limited top speed of 95mph. The car, however, is a two-seater, the space normally inhabited by rear passengers being taken up by the lithium-ion battery.

In addition, GM is developing something called the Volt, which will do 100mph and Mitsubishi the i-Miev, capable they say of 85mph. If you really want an electric supercar though, you need to look at the Tesla electric roadster. This does 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds but costs over £87,000, so what was the point of developing that?

And it is the cost of electric cars, which is likely to be double that of their petrol-powered cousins, that is likely to put people off the most, hence the government offering a cash sweetener. But is electric really the way to go and will all these incentives and publicity be money well spent in the long run?

Well, not according to some environmentalists, the ones who probably are more au fait with green matters than most of us. They point out that electric cars aren’t ‘green’ anyway, since it still requires power stations, many of them coal-fired, to generate the electricity required to charge them. So the cars may have zero emissions but we’re still pumping CO2 into the atmosphere in order to produce the power for them. It is claimed, instead, that we should be looking at hydrogen cells as source of power. These combine hydrogen with oxygen and the only by-product you get is water.

So all these initiatives from the government might really be nothing more than a way of grabbing headlines and paying lip-service to environmental concerns. After all, the car is not as great a polluter on the grand scheme as it’s made out to be either.

According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases is agriculture, which produces more than all the cars, planes, ships and trains put together. And even a single container ship can apparently produce the same pollution as 50 million cars. It’s all a matter of putting things in perspective and not just tackling the most high-profile polluter.

So are electric cars the answer? I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t know the answer to that one, but I do rather suspect that Electric Avenue might just turn out to be a dead-end.

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