Plugging in or opting out?

car exhaust

by James Carson

Visitors to the this year’s Geneva Motor Show , which closed on Sunday evening,  may have noticed some signs that the times are changing: half of the space on Renault’s large exhibition stand was dedicated to battery-powered cars; new electric vehicle models were unveiled by BMW, Volkswagen and Kia and Porsche exhibited the Panamera S, a hybrid model able to travel for 20 miles on nothing but battery power.

And although Europe’s 2014 Car of the Year, announced in Geneva, was not an electric vehicle (the winner was the Peugeot 308), two of the cars on the shortlist were plug-in models.

Under pressure from regulators and consumers, motor manufacturers have been working to produce vehicles that rely less on fossil fuels.  At the same time, governments, keen to meet their carbon emissions targets, have been encouraging drivers to make the change from conventional cars to plug-in vehicles.

In spite of the hopeful signs in Geneva of springtime for greener vehicles, it’s clear that electric cars have a long way to go before they rival conventional vehicles. A 2013 House of Commons report observed that emissions from cars still account for more than half of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Even so, the momentum seems to be building towards an all-important tipping point for electric vehicles (EVs):

  • In February 2013 the Coalition Government announced a £37 million funding package for home and on-street charging, and for new charge points for people parking plug-in vehicles at railway stations
  • In September 2013 the Scottish Government set out its vision that by 2050, Scotland’s towns, cities and communities will be free from petrol and diesel fumes, largely due to increased numbers of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
  • In February 2014, London was announced as the home to an EV charging pilot scheme to help prepare the rest of the country for a major push in the use of electric vehicles.

Some local authorities are leading by example in encouraging private drivers to make the transition to electric vehicles.

In 2012, the City of York Council adopted a low emission strategy to help reduce the emissions of local air pollutants and greenhouse gases. The council were interested in exploring  the potential benefits of electric vehicles, and successfully applied for the Plugged-in Fleets initiative (PIFI), an Energy Saving Trust (EST) initiative aimed at helping organisations  understand where plug-in vehicles could practically work for their business.

Having analysed the council’s existing fleet of tradesmen’s vans and pool cars, EST worked out that EVs would be a penny cheaper to run per mile, compared to the diesel vehicle the council was already operating. Operating the EVs will not just save money, but also a tonne of CO2 per year.

The council is in the process of procuring a fleet of electric pool cars, and plans to begin electric van procurement. The initiative has already encouraged some members of the council’s staff to consider buying electric vehicles for themselves.

York’s impressive initiative aside, the UK is still far behind one European country that is powering ahead of the rest in terms of EV innovation. Norway’s fleet of plug-in electric vehicles is the largest per capita in the world.  In 2013 there were four plug-in electric vehicles per 1,000 people in Norway, nine times higher than the United States, and by the end of this year Oslo is expected to have more electric vehicles than Los Angeles and San Francisco combined.

The Norwegians’ enthusiasm for the electric car can be explained by central government’s strong and sustained efforts to persuade drivers to make the change. Among the incentives introduced for EV users are:

  • Exemption from non-recurring vehicle fees, including purchase taxes (making EV’s extremely competitively priced in comparison with conventional cars)
  • Exemption from the road tax, public parking fees and toll payments
  • Permission to use bus lanes

Norway’s impressive record is in stark contrast to that of the UK.  In Norway, with a population of 5 million, over 21,000 all-electric vehicles are now registered, while in the UK (population: 63 million), there are just 5,000 EVs. According to WWF, if the UK is to meet its agreed carbon reduction target of at least 80 per cent by 2050, around 1.7 million EVs need to be sold by 2020.

However, resistance to EVs remains, with one increasing concern being heavy depreciation on second-hand models. Data from CAP Automotive in 2013 showed that, in the previous three years, all-electric vehicles had retained only 20.2 per cent of their value. Analysts believe that when prices start to come down, depreciation will slow, but there is no indication of how long that will take.

Perhaps more worryingly, there are signs that the Norwegian love affair with EVs is already coming to an end.  Incentives will be withdrawn once 50,000 zero emission cars have been registered, which could be as soon as next year, and it’s already becoming harder for EV drivers in Oslo to find available charging facilities.

And, just to muddy the waters, a study last year by Norwegian academics found that in some circumstances electric cars can have a greater impact on global warming than conventional cars

For the time being, the EV is likely to remain a novelty, rather than a serious challenger to the internal combustion engine.

Further Reading

Switched on Scotland: a roadmap to widespread adoption of plug-in vehicles

Assessing the role of the Plug-in Car Grant and Plugged-in Places scheme in electric vehicle take-up (Published Project Report no PPR668)

What will it take to re-ignite the disappointing market for electric vehicles in the UK?

Wired for the road (electric vehicles)

Electric vehicles: a tentative economic and environmental evaluation

What do you think?

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