Subsidies not the electric answer


ELECTRIC CARS:Taxpayers’ money needs to be used fairly for energy-saving initiatives. The best way to do this is to scrap the subsidies for electric cars and introduce a nation-wide car share scheme which will benefit us all, writes JAMES NIX

THE GOVERNMENT seems hell-bent on offering a subsidy of €5,000 to buyers of electric cars. Exclude the subsidy and a saloon-sized electric vehicle would cost in the region of €35,000. So, under the draft scheme, taxpayers stump up €5,000 for each electric vehicle but, unlike public transport, ordinary taxpayers have no opportunity to use these vehicles, unless, of course, they are among the small number of purchasers.

But who are the would-be purchasers? A recent report by Deloitte Consulting found that it would only be “young, very high-income individuals” that could afford to take up the US government subsidy for electric vehicles, which is set at roughly the same level as planned here. Typically, these purchasers would come from households with incomes greater than €150,000 a year.

The major selling point with electric vehicles is their ultra-low fuel cost, with some manufacturers claiming an 80 per cent saving. So, if the Government persists with its subsidy scheme then, as oil prices rise, the wealthy become wealthier.

It’s an extreme policy contradiction: the Government is proposing to use tax receipts to insulate the wealthy from rises in travel costs. But as the Government knows only too well, this is the last income group that requires help with fuel poverty.

There is simply no need to be socially exclusive in introducing electric cars.

Next year Paris will launch its all-electric car share scheme, known as Autolib, with 3,000 vehicles located at 1,000 stations in the city and surrounding region. The plan is to have a monthly subscription of €15 with every half hour charged at €5. The southern French city of Nice is examining a similar scheme with 200 vehicles at 70 locations.

Consider a share scheme in Ireland where €20m of taxpayers’ money could be used for the outright purchase of 600 electric vehicles which are then deployed to 200 stations across Ireland, giving access to shared vehicles in every town and city.

Introducing a public transport dimension yields much wider benefits. Electric cars can then be used not only by motorists within walking or cycling distance, but also by those dropped off at car stations by family and friends. Public transport will also be used to get to and from car stations.

The point is taxpayers’ money benefits a far broader section of society than is currently proposed and it brings public transport and electric vehicles together.

Let’s try to put some numbers on it. How many would benefit under a car share scheme? A great deal depends on the pricing policy but we’ve already proven ourselves wholesale enthusiasts for share schemes.

Dublin Bikes started off with 450 hire bicycles and assumed that little more than three regular users would sign up per bike. In fact, more than 80 people have signed up per bike and the total number of annual memberships may not be far off 40,000 by the first anniversary of the scheme this September. If 600 vehicles are bought for a share scheme, and just 40 people sign up per vehicle, the total number benefitted is 24,000 (counting individual drivers only).

Now contrast this with a subsidy scheme. Taking that same €20m, the Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan, is looking at just 4,000 purchasers of electric cars with a €5,000 subsidy given to each one.

In other words, six times more people could experience electric cars under a car share schemeand this leaves aside all the ancillary benefits that the Minister should be interested in.

THE PUBLIC transport dimension of a hire scheme allows families to shed second cars as they can share vehicles and people in their 20s and 30s can avoid the cost burden of car ownership altogether thanks to car sharing. Dublin Bikes has already helped lever a cultural shift in the capital in favour of low-energy transport.

A national car share scheme would take this one step further.

The reasons for a share scheme are also environmental. Pristine salt plains in South America are being churned up to make the lithium batteries required by electric cars. Mining lithium is a dirty process. Vast amounts of chlorine are used destroying the local water table. Industrial lithium production has already laid waste thousands of square kilometres, leaving water supplies too polluted even for agriculture, and ending farming in parts of Chile and Argentina. It threatens to do the same in Bolivia.If this is expanded, the whole area could end up being ruined.

If electric cars are for the ecologically-conscious, then at the very least there’s an environmental imperative to use lithium sparingly and to make sure it delivers the greatest good for the greatest number.

Low-cost mobility should not be a rich man’s ride, and to avoid this, electric vehicles have to be available to the public. Taxpayers’ money needs to be used fairly for energy-saving initiatives.

James Nix is coordinator of Plan Better, a joint policy initiative of An Taisce, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Irish Environment and Feasta