Time to pull the plug on electric cars?

 

We have invested a lot in the promise of an electric future for cars, but fewer than 200 electric cars are on Irish roads, far short of the expected 2,000. Is Ireland’s electric dream over?

THE COST OF a battery-powered car ranges from just over €22,000 for a Renault Fluence ZE – a price that does not include the batteries, which you must lease separately – to just over €30,000 for the best-known electric car so far, the Nissan Leaf. As a nation, however, we have invested €23,300 in every electric car sold since 2009, with Electric Ireland having spent €3.9 million installing charging points for public, domestic and business use. Sustainable Energy Ireland has also paid €573,600 in grants to buyers of electric vehicles, a scheme designed to encourage early adopters.

It seems rather a lot of investment in what can so far only be considered a failure. At the launch of Ireland’s great leap forward into an electric-car future we were promised that 2,000 electric cars would be sold by the end of 2011, with an eye to 10 per cent of the new-vehicle market consisting of electric cars by the end of 2020. That would amount to about 7,000 cars a year, assuming the current new-car market remains static for that long.

Instead, fewer than 200 such cars are on the road, despite assurances that Ireland was a perfect test case for electric-car sales: we are a relatively small island with a high level of home ownership (the better for charging cars on the driveway at home), and our climate doesn’t strain battery performance with extreme temperatures. If we are indeed the test case, then it seems electric cars don’t have much of a future.

And we are not alone. The German government recently floated plans for a big expansion of its electric-car incentive programme, after disappointing sales so far. Angela Merkel’s government had set an ambitious target of putting a million electric cars on German roads by 2020, but so far this year, of a total market of 2.1 million cars, just 2,700 have been battery-powered vehicles.

Here, the National Economic Social Council says more work is needed to develop electric-car usage. It acknowledges that “significant supporting work, which is being actively led by Electric Ireland”, is under way. The focus of this work is principally on surrounding technology – issues such as supporting ICT and data analytics; financial and payment services; charging infrastructure and engineering; working with companies and local authorities to create public charging infrastructure; and trials with drivers.

“Without innovation at this level – between the high-level car and battery technology and the day-to-day needs of an EV [electric vehicle] user – EVs would not be a viable proposition. In this sense, the supporting work is focused on what might be termed mid-level innovation, which will be critical for the long-term roll-out of EVs,” says the council.

All very true, but it doesn’t square the circle that car buyers, reluctant to part with money for even conventional cars at the moment, are even more reluctant to invest big sums in cars that might shortly be obsolete. Car makers have not been helping themselves in this area by talking about ever-improving technology and increased battery ranges, a move that, far from reassuring customers, has seemed to make them sit tight and wait for these whizz-bang improvements to arrive.

The slow roll-out of public charging points and fast chargers – critical to assuaging “range anxiety” – hasn’t helped. Originally, we were promised 1,500 public charging points and 40 fast chargers by the end of 2011. As we approach the end of 2012, 860 public chargers and 30 fast chargers have been installed.

A recent announcement by Toyota does not bode well. The Japanese car giant has renounced purely battery-powered vehicles; instead it will concentrate its vast research-and-development resources on plug-in hybrids with smaller battery packs that can power the car for 20km or so before a conventional engine turns on to provide power for longer journeys.

“We have seen that customers are not yet willing to compromise on range and they don’t like the time needed to recharge the batteries,” said Toyota Motor Europe’s CEO, Didier Leroy. “So even if we are ready with our production version of the iQ EV, we think a plug-in hybrid solution offers a better way than pure electric for most customers’ needs.”

Some of Toyota’s rivals agree. General Motors (including Opel) and Volvo are both following the plug-in hybrid or range-extender route rather than the pure battery one. Such cars need only a home-charging network (and can often be charged in under four hours from a conventional domestic socket) rather than a large network of public charging points.

But Renault and Volkswagen are persevering with pure electric cars; they will be joined by others in the coming years, including BMW and Ford (although both of those car makers are hedging their bets with a combination of pure electric and plug-in hybrids).

“We promote charging at home as the primary source of charge,” says Julien Lelorrain of Renault Ireland. “The home-charge point is free to the first 2,000 buyers of electric vehicles, and it is essentially the driver’s fuel station at home. With fuel prices rising at the pumps, having your own fuel station at home is becoming increasingly attractive to those who suit electric vehicles.”

That fuel-price argument, surprisingly, is less convincing than you might think. Although we have all watched, aghast, as prices at the pump have risen, the average car is 23 per cent more fuel efficient than it was in 2000, with an average economy of 52.5mpg, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, in the UK. Had you changed your car regularly, and always gone for the most economical model possible, you’d have effectively kept ahead of the fuel-price rises.

Perhaps, then, we are still waiting for the trigger point for electric cars, the point at which public consciousness switches on to such vehicles and ceases to regard them as a risky alternative purchase. Volkswagen says that moment is coming and that it has as much to do with perception as with technology.

“I think the problem at the moment isn’t with Electric Ireland, the Government or with the number of charging points, but it lies with the viability of the product from a customer point of view. The technology is very much in its infancy, and asking Irish buyers to jump into a new technology that on the surface appears to have limitations is always going to be a challenge. This is especially true when finances are difficult and buyers need to be more careful about their purchases,” says Paddy Comyn of Volkswagen Group Ireland.

“I think the mistake a lot of manufacturers have made is that they made their electric offerings look quite radical. Buyers will embrace electric cars when they are just another option in their purchase decision, alongside petrol or diesel. When Volkswagen offers electric cars they will look and operate in a very similar way to our standard cars, but even initially they won’t suit everyone. Sure, there are limitations in terms of range, but the running costs have the potential to be extraordinarily low. As with any new technology, though, it is likely to remain quite expensive to buy in its formative years, and that might be where the Government will once again have to step in to encourage its purchase.

“I don’t think we will see much traction of the technology here in Ireland until perhaps three to four years from now.”

The question for the Government and taxpayers remains: what level of investment should we put behind this technology? And lingering in the long grass is the possibility that the motoring world may embrace hydrogen-powered cars within the next decade or so.

The numbers

192

The number of electric cars sold in the Republic since 2009

€23,300

Average amount invested nationally in every electric car sold

€573,600

Amount paid by Sustainable Energy Ireland in grants to buyers of electric vehicles

€3.9m

Amount Electric Ireland has spent installing charging points

Offsetting the cost of electric

Actually, the country’s €4.4 million investment in putting just 192 electric cars on the road so far isn’t quite the bad bet that you might think at face value.

Consider this: if every person had gone out and bought a conventional family car in motor tax band A, with average carbon-dioxide emissions of 120g/km, and then driven those cars for 10,000km a year each, they would have emitted 230,400 tonnes of CO2.

For Ireland to buy enough carbon credits on the international market to offset 230,400 tonnes would cost €8,524,800 (assuming a cost of €37 per tonne carbon credit – roughly the current international median cost).

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