Budgets, barriers and the triple bottom line

As Beijing signs an official agreement to join the list of Formula E host cities, rumbles about the sustainability credentials of the series are growing louder.

Michael Vaughn, of Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, points out that jetting teams and equipment across the world and building temporary safety infrastructure in city centres is far from environmentally friendly.

He is absolutely correct. The fuel burned by racing cars is typically a tiny fraction of the carbon output of each team. Formula 1 cars, for example, run for not much more than eight or nine hours over a three day race weekend. But building and testing those vehicles calls for huge energy and materials input, as does transporting equipment and personnel around the world. Powering the cars solely by electricity doesn’t remove these problems, and introduces others: the electricity will likely be created in power stations burning fossil fuels and transmitted along hundreds of miles of power lines and pylons. None of this is eco-friendly.

Formula E promoter FEH hasn’t tried to hide from the facts however. Alejandro Agag, FEH’s charismatic chief, homes in on  a different agenda: boosting sales of electric cars to the general public. True, these vehicles are just as limited in their total carbon footprint as their single seat racing idols. When manufacturing the cars and producing the electricity is taken into account, today’s electric vehicles are no better than efficient diesel cars.

However, as power generation becomes more efficient and renewables grow their contribution to the energy mix, electric cars may become a far better solution than their fossil fuelled siblings, especially when it comes to cleaning up the air in cities.

I work for a major engineering firm which takes pride in planning for the ‘triple bottom line’: achieving environmental, social and commercial sustainability.

Other racing series are running in the red when it comes to budgets, when it comes to the goodwill of spectators who pay more and more for entry or to access television coverage and when it comes to presenting a responsible view for the future. Just look at a recent piece in the Guardian newspaper about the skyrocketing debt in F1, and warnings on the sport’s financial viability in Sporting Life by Martin Whitmarsh of F1 top tier team McLaren.

Formula E is not selling itself as the solution to the world’s energy problems, but it is offering an attractive method of inducing rapid engineering innovation to advance the technologies that may well become that solution. And the series, certainly from first impressions, appears to be weighing the human and financial costs just as carefully as the environmental ones.

In reviewing the triple bottom line, Formula E looks a lot closer to balancing the books than it’s gassy siblings. It might not perfect, but it’s realistic – and achievable.


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