Motor racing is not generally associated with saving the planet, but a high-adrenaline championship is working hard to ditch the petrolhead, climate-wrecking image.

Extreme E, a thrilling off-road electric vehicle race series about to take over a disused opencast coal mine in Scotland, is out to not only prove that racing can be low-footprint, but it can also deliver stirring messages to inspire change.

Ahead of next weekend’s championship race in Dumfries and Galloway, Ali Russell, co-founder of Extreme E, described the event: “We have unbelievable racing - lots of overtakes, lots of excitement – and that allows us to broaden out the story to talk about climate change, sustainability, equality, and diversity.”

The series, which has already taken its high-profile race teams and cars to Senegal, Saudia Arabia, the Atacama Desert, and Greenland, had been on the hunt for a site in Scotland when it came across Glenmuckloch, a disused opencast coal mine in Dumfries and Galloway.

The site was chosen, said Mr Russell because it “tells a story of a journey from fossil fuels to renewables”. Its draw was twofold. Firstly, the landscape, with its brooding beauty and stark rock faces provides a thrilling, desolate backdrop. Secondly, the site delivers its own narrative about tackling climate change.

The opencast coal mine, owned by Buccleuch Estates and leased to Foresight, is currently being developed for a new future as a pump-hydro storage facility – where energy from wind can be stored, by pumping water into a reservoir which can then be used to create energy as a hydroelectric power station does.

The Herald: Glenmuckloch opencast coalmine, Extreme E track

Glenmuckloch opencast coal mine

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Glenmuckloch was chosen, said Mr Russsell, because, of “its unique story”. “The landscape has been scarred by opencast coal mining trom a previous generation and the area is looking to rejuvenate and develop. It’s a story of how communities are changing.”

But Extreme E is not just about the climate message - it’s also about the thrills. “The team,” Mr Russell said, “are telling me this is going to be our most exciting track. The fact that it's got this beautiful area around it and we’ve got these jumps across burns means that we have all the challenges that create the jeopardy you want in racing – and specifically in off-road racing.”

Extreme E is the follow-up to Formula E, which some of the team developed over a decade ago with the intention of bringing what they describe as “e-mobility” to city centres and “accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles”.

Whereas Formula E took its EVs tearing around city centres, Extreme E takes its electric SUVs off-road and into wilder spaces.

“Motorsport,” Mr Russell said, “has had an incredible history of developing technology and we wanted to really focus on electric technology. “With 30 percent of global emissions coming through transportation, the idea of using racing to develop technology to accelerate the mass adoption of electric vehicles looked like a sensible, purposeful proposition.”

The Herald: An Extreme E SUV outside the Scottish parliament

An Extreme E zero-emissions SUV outside the Scottish Parliament

The Glenmuckloch championship, called the Hydro X Prix, taking place on May 13 and 14, will be televised on STV and will also be viewable online, where Extreme-E already has a fanbase of over 130 million.

“What we wanted to do," said Mr Russell, was change the expectations of electric vehicles, move people on from that viewpoint that they aren’t sexy, they aren’t exciting, they have a lack of performance. The drivers are getting out of the cars, and these are drivers that have been schooled in combustion engine vehicles, and they’re just amazed at the performance of the cars. They’re incredibly sexy.”

Extreme E’s electric SUVs each weigh in at 1.8 tonnes and the majority of that is battery. They have a top speed of 200 km/h. Individual races are just ten-minutes-long and each car has a team of two drivers, one female and one male.

“We’ve got,” said Mr Russell, “some of the best drivers in the world, the best teams in the world. Lewis Hamilton has a team, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, all Formula 1 world champions.”

Extreme E has already staged events in Greenland, the Atacama desert, Senegal, and Saudi Arabia. Track sites have been chosen not only for their thrilling landscape but also for potential narrative about climate change – for instance rising sea levels, melting glaciers, deforestation, and desertification.

The Herald: Extreme E championship, Senegal

Extreme E in Senegal

In choosing them, Extreme E worked with a team of renowned scientists: including the chair of the panel, climate and marine scientist Professor Carlos Duarte – who has spoken of the opportunity “to reach people outside of our usual networks.”

Extreme E believes sport, and particularly motorsport, is an ideal medium through which to convey these messages. “Scientists,” said Mr Russell, “have been talking about climate change for 20 years. The problem is that there’s been a lack of connection - the message is only cutting through for a certain section of the population”

The off-road championship also publishes its carbon footprint – in the form of a detailed sustainability report, produced for them by EY. “What we try to do is,” he said, “make this freely available to other sports because quite frankly if we can do it in the Atacama desert, then other sports can do it in fixed venues that are there year-in, year-out."

Their most recent report showed that Extreme E had maintained its carbon-neutral status, emitting a total of 9,045 tCO2-e over the race series, which were then offset through investment in two deforestation-reduction projects in the Amazon.

READ MORE: Glenmuckloch, the opencast coal mine set to be Extreme E racetrack

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The cars, themselves, of course, are zero emissions. But a key thing Extreme E has done to improve its footprint since its first season is to stop transporting these cars by air. “We took,” said Mr Russell, “the decision to reduce our logistics carbon footprint by 2/3 by taking all of the paddock and the cars and charging equipment from location to location using the St Helena, a half-cargo, half-passenger ship, which acts as our mobile paddock as it goes round the world.”

Compare that with Formula 1, which, in 2019 published its first sustainability strategy and committed to net zero by 2030, and has calculated that it produces approximately 256, 000 tonnes of CO2 each year – with, interestingly 73 percent of these from logistics, and only 0.7 percent directly from cars.

Part of Extreme E's project is also to help accelerate EV technology - with one year of racing, said Mr Russell, s considered equivalent to ten years of R&D. “The technology that we are creating can go into road cars in a very short amount of time.”

The Glenmuckloch site has taken a month to build. Anna Fergusson of Buccleuch Estates, which owns the land, said: “It’s all using existing materials that are on the site. They’re working with the locals and the local wildlife and the sheep. It’s quite a challenge, but they seem to have managed.”

Extreme E also has a practice of always leaving a "legacy” at every location. At Glenmuckloch it’s by supporting a project on the River Nith to investigate and mitigate the challenges to North Atlantic salmon - whose populations are in crisis across Scotland – by both tree-planting to reduce bank erosion and provide shade, alongside monitoring of temperatures and water quality.

The man behind it, Jim Henderson, director of the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board,  enthused about the race coming to the area.

“It’s almost like a circus coming to town,” he said. “I have to say I was a fan of extreme E before these guys came to town – so is it fun for me? You bet. These are some of the best drivers in the world, driving for these teams involved. These are big names – and let’s be honest, salmon and the habitat they live in is maybe not the sexy subject. To have these guys coming here giving some of the industries that I’m involved in the profile that they can do – that's an opportunity I couldn’t miss.”

The Herald: Arctic scientist, Professor Peter Wadhams visiting Glenmuckloch and River Nith

The Herald: Arctic scientist, Professor Peter Wadhams visiting Glenmuckloch and River NithProfessor Peter Wadhams visiting Glenmuckloch and the River Nith

But Extreme E is not entirely about sustainability – it’s also about gender equality. “We also want,” Mr Russell said, "to deliver an entertainment proposition which uses men and women as drivers and as heroes, to demonstrate that EV technology can not only work in extreme locations but can be incredibly exciting, fast, great agility, immediate torque and performance and hugely entertaining.”

 “It’s incredibly competitive because these drivers do not want to lose. It’s a team format, so It's unique in the world of motorsports. It’s almost like mixed doubles from Wimbledon, where you have one car two drivers, one is a man and one is a woman and they both desperately want to win. “The wonderful thing is it’s giving opportunities to female drivers – and it’s not just giving opportunities, but the format lends itself to giving the drivers the opportunity to learn from each other and to accelerate their growth as drivers."

They are keen to deliver this message of inspiration to schools wherever they take the series.

“What I love about this championship,” he said, “is that it’s about men and women, and it’s about not just encouraging the boys in the classroom, but the boys and the girls in the classroom. and there are a lot of careers in motorsport. It’s not just being a driver. You can get involved in engineering, you can get involved as a mechanic, you can be part of the support staff and logistics, and so on.”