Why you should – or should not – buy an electric car now

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Should you buy an electric vehicle now, or wait for better prices, batteries and infrastructure?

Most households have a “tech history” drawer, stuffed with a PalmPilot, bulging Bluetooth headsets, iPods and early generation iPhones. One-time must-have tech that quickly became old hat.

The dilemma facing motorists is that it’s easy to hide your tech follies in a drawer, less so when it’s sitting on your driveway. No one wants to get stuck with an automotive equivalent of the Blackberry.

Car buyers find themselves at a crossroads: stick to petrol or diesel, opt for some flavour of hybrid, or take the plunge to full electric. Make the wrong call and this could really hurt your family finances.

The latest new car sales figures show Irish motorists are keen to make the move. While sales of both diesel and petrol cars are down this year, hybrid sales are up 60.5 per cent, now representing 12.2 per cent of the market, while electric sales are up 15 per cent to 1,294 registrations. That’s still less than 3 per cent of the new car market, but it’s on the upward curve. And anecdotal evidence from the forecourts is that the first question most buyers ask is “what can I buy that’s electric?”.

The motor industry doesn’t always help the confused buyer. Various branches of the business differ when advising on which technology to adopt. In the cut-throat car market, they constantly contradict each other.

The public’s trust in the motor trade is also paper thin. The Volkswagen dieselgate scandal – where the German car giant admitted to cheating on US emissions tests for years – left the industry’s reputation in tatters.

Political grand plans for an electric future are not held in any higher esteem. Little more than a decade ago, our political masters told us to turn to diesel to tackle climate change. In doing so, they ignored the carcinogenic nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from diesel tailpipes and its impact on air quality. Now, politicians are calling for a ban on diesels.

So ignoring the marketing spin and political promises, what do we know? Well, while hydrogen may offer a long-term fuel solution, for the next few decades the future for private motoring will certainly be electric.

But are you better to buy a petrol or diesel now and wait for five years when the batteries will be better, the recharging network will be in place and the prices have fallen? Or should you opt for electric now?

Range and charging

The initial problem with electric cars was the range. The first electric cars to arrive here early in the last decade struggled to get 100km on a single charge. Today’s new electric cars can top 400km before they need a plug, enough to cover most daily commutes and school runs, particularly if you are able to recharge the car at home.

The issue now is more about the reliability of the public charging network. While there are an estimated 1,500 charging points on the island, not all of them deliver at the sort of speeds customers need, nor are they always working.

Even with just 9,563 electric cars registered in the Republic, queues at recharging stations are increasingly common.

A recent trip by this writer from Dublin to Mayo highlighted the problem many electric car owners face when reliant on the public network. The round trip was 454km. For a petrol, diesel or hybrid car that’s not a problem. For an electric car, that means some time spent sipping service station coffee. On both legs of the trip I had to stop for over 50 minutes to recharge. And an hour at Enfield’s service station is an eternity when you’re trying to get from A to B.

Electric car owners in these locations acquire a slightly glazed look, perhaps struggling to reassure themselves that they’re helping the planet as other motorists come and go.

And that’s if you are lucky to get access to a working fast charger. On the slower chargers, the wait can be four hours or more for a full charge. Castlerea has a lot to offer passersby, but it’s still hard to fill four hours on a cold night in February.

On my trip west, problems with a supposed fast charger meant I had to fall back to a slower charge on the outward journey. There was a hunt for a plug to get a top-up while in Mayo and I had to make two stops on the way back to Dublin, further frustrated by a broken charger. The journey from Dublin to Mayo should have taken under 2½ hours. Instead it took over four.

As for charging at home, there are two million houses in the State, according to the Central Statistics Office. Of these, 200,000 are apartments or flats where home charging may be difficult or impossible.

Similarly, 500,000 dwellings are rented, and again it may be difficult to convince a landlord to allow the installation of a charging point. The CSO does not have figures for what percentage of the housing stock is terraced or has no driveway– also impediments to home charging.

Cost

The other issue with buying electric right now is cost. Even after the Government’s generous grants – €5,000 off the Vehicle Registration Tax and a further €5,000 grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) – prices for electric cars start at between €30,000 and €40,000. For larger or premium models, they quickly rise above €80,000.

Many of Ireland’s two million car owners simply can’t afford these models or can’t access a reliable charge point. But what about those lucky motorists who can stump up the cash and fit a home charger?

Should they buy electric now? The short answer is yes.

There’s a caveat of course – you really need to be able to recharge at home. And if you occasionally go on long trips then you need to plan them like military manoeuvres. But those issues aside, it now makes sense to opt for electric.

Making the move to electric now is no longer a leap into the great unknown

For a start, the Government grants are not going to last forever. Alongside the €10,000 in grants and tax rebates you get off the price, the SEAI provides a grant of up to €600 towards the purchase and installation of a home charger unit – which covers most of the total price. For example, Electric Ireland charges €749 for a 7kW home charger.

The Government’s Climate Action Plan is quite clear: “The mix of fiscal incentives will be revised annually as grants are gradually withdrawn.” Already the Government has called time on the €3,800 grant to businesses opting for electric cars.

The entry-level Nissan Leaf – with a claimed range of 270km – starts at €30,000; the Hyundai Kona Electric with a range of nearly 450km starts at €40,000, and the new Tesla Model 3 at €47,000. Several new all-electric versions of popular hatchbacks – Peugeot's award-winning 208, Opel's Corsa and the latest Renault Zoe – are also fresh on the market, with ranges of 300km or so and prices starting at €27,000.

Dacia has announced plans for an all-electric SUV crossover that may well be Ireland's cheapest electric car when it arrives next year.

If you are waiting for prices like these to significantly drop, you may be waiting a while. Car companies are struggling to make a profit on electric vehicles. Much of their multi-billion euro investments in electric are funded by the sale of petrol and diesel models. In that light, it is hard to see prices plummeting over the next few years.

Price of batteries

According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into the future of personal mobility, the prices of batteries are set to stay stubbornly high well into the next decade.

It has been assumed that as electric vehicles become more popular, economies of scale will bring their prices down, and the need for large government-backed incentives will be lessened.

Not so, says MIT. “Our cost analysis indicates that a mid-sized battery electric vehicle with a range of 200-plus miles (321km) will likely remain upwards of $5,000 (€4,600) more expensive to manufacture than a similar internal combustion vehicle through 2030,” said the MIT report.

The report warns that while the costs of producing the batteries will drop, they will still be dependent on the cost of the limited raw materials used – principally lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel. A recent BMW seminar on battery design and production revealed that, of the cost of creating a new electric car, the battery accounts for about 80 per cent of the total vehicle cost, and of that, 80 per cent is down to the sheer cost of the raw materials.

So unless there is a revolutionary breakthrough in battery engineering, then costs will fall only incrementally. The good news is that this means the resale values of the latest crop of electric cars should remain strong, while the benefits of lower running costs start to pay off during the years of ownership.

And if you are concerned about the risk to resale values, you can always opt to lease the car through a finance deal such as Personal Contract Plan (PCP).

Savings

There are clearly savings to be made by opting for electric over either diesel or petrol. The ESB estimates that someone travelling 100km each week will face a charge of €1.27 in electricity (assuming home charging), against €10.80 for a petrol car or €7.87 for a diesel.

Initial evidence also suggests that with far fewer moving parts, electric cars will require less servicing. One executive in the Irish motor trade estimated that regular servicing work for his dealers will fall by over 50 per cent when electric cars become the norm. So there are savings in terms of running costs.

And while the back-street repairers are not yet trained for the electric age, that will quickly change as the national fleet increases.

Of course, many motorists will struggle to fund a new electric car, but according to the CSO, at the last census 54.5 per cent of households in rural areas had two cars or more, while in urban areas the figure was still 33 per cent. For them, a cheap secondhand electric car could be the answer.

A five-year-old used electric car can be bought for about €12,000. While it may struggle to do more than 100km on a full charge, that’s adequate for many daily commutes, if you’ve got a petrol or diesel back-up for longer trips.

Electric cars are no longer the preserve of well-heeled eager early adopters. Nor is the latest fleet of new electric cars likely to end up as obsolete gadgets. There will certainly be better – and better looking – electric cars to come, but making the move to electric now is no longer a leap into the great unknown.

So when we get the calculator out, what do the figures say? There are savings to be made on running costs by opting for electric, although the initial cost price is usually higher.

Take VW’s Golf range. A 1-litre TSI 115bhp manual transmission petrol car in entry-level Trendline trim costs €24,995. A 1.5-litre 115bhp diesel version costs €26,850. The all-electric e-Golf, costs €27,895 after grants are taken into account and is better equipped.

The petrol car costs 8 cent per km, based on a fuel price of €1.44 per litre. The diesel costs 7 cent per km based on a fuel price of €1.34 per litre. The electric car costs 1 cent per km if charged on an electricity night rate of 9 cent per kWh, or 3 cent per km on a day rate of 18 cent per kWh.

For someone doing 20,000km a year, it will cost approximately €1,600 in the petrol Golf, roughly €1,400 in the diesel version, and €200-€600 in the electric Golf depending on whether they avail of the lower night rate. At this mileage, the cost difference between petrol and electric is made up in three years or less.

Depending on the brands, the price gap between petrol, diesel and electric versions can be more significant. At Peugeot a petrol version of the new 208 starts at €19,550, the diesel at €21,750, and the all-electric at €27,334. Yet they reckon over three years, with savings on fuel, tax, and maintenance, and under their PCP finance offering, the electric version actually works out cheaper on a monthly basis, costing €369 per month compared with €373 for the diesel and €391 for the petrol.

And that’s not accounting for the fact that the electric version is far more fun to drive, and a permit to take the high moral ground over your petrol-powered polluting neighbours.

The pros and cons of plugging into the public network

The reliability and availability of public electric car chargers has been a contentious issue for some time. Apart from the shortage of fast chargers (those that can charge at 50kW and above) and the often ill-tempered queues at charging points that can result from limited supply, there’s the issue of broken or out-of-service chargers.

Some online forums suggest that, at any one time, 20 per cent of the charging network is down for repairs.

The ESB denies this, but sadly wouldn’t be more specific in response to an Irish Times query. “Due to commercial sensitivities we cannot share any more specific information in relation to the availability of chargers on our network,” said a spokesman.

That’s an issue. Currently, electric car users rely on self-reporting on forums and websites when chargers are having technical issues. There are charger information apps, such as ESB’s own e-Cars app, and the popular Zap-Map and PlugShare apps, but they are far from flawless. Late last year, the ESB actually advised users to disregard its own map app, and rely on third-party versions instead.

A recent snapshot of the Zap-Map listings showed that of the ESB’s 1,500 chargers on the island, some 35 had “issues reported” or “out of service” notices. The problem is that these notices are not live and can have a considerable time-lag to them, so a charger may be working perfectly when it is still reported as malfunctioning, and vice-versa.

Commercial sensitivities are all well and good, but electric vehicle drivers will need live, accurate and timely information if they are to make proper use of the public charging network.

The ESB has said it is investing in new charging points, and indeed multi-charger hubs, but the network is still quite sparse for a fast-growing population of electric cars.

A recent report by environmental think-tank Transport & Environment suggests Ireland will have to install 28,000 public charging points (both fast chargers and slower output units) by 2030 if the network is to keep pace with the demand for electric cars.

Another issue for those using public charging is price. Since November 2019, the ESB has introduced pricing for fast public charging so a 50kW charger costs 33 cent per kW-hour (kWh), though there are discounts for monthly subscribers.

Taking the regular price, it means the new Renault Zoe, for example, with a 52kWh battery, would cost €17.16 to fully charge from flat. A Kia e-Niro, with its 62kWh battery would cost €20.46, while an Audi e-Tron quattro with a 95kWh battery, would cost €31.

Of course, much of the electric motoring future hinges on owners charging at home, which on the standard Electric Ireland rate of 0.1974 per kWh would lead to an empty-to-full charge price for a Kia eNiro 64kWh of €12.63. That would be reduced further if you have a smart meter and can charge on the night rate.

Add in a discount for paying by direct debit, and you could potentially hit a €0.0983 per kWh rate, and have a charging cost of just €6.29 for the eNiro. That’s based on the basic ESB per-kWh charge, and there will be other offers coming down the track for electric and plugin-hybrid car buyers.

For instance, Ford has teamed up with Bord Gáis to offer special electric car charging rates for its future electric customers, while Volkswagen has set up its own energy supplier offshoot, Elli, which will offer customers all-in-one packages of domestic and vehicle power supply. Honda, Mercedes, and others are working on similar plans.

IONITY (a charging conglomerate made up of Ford, VW, Mercedes, Hyundai and other car manufacturers) has also introduced a charging rate for its ultra-rapid 150kW chargers. Itcosts 79c per kWh to charge, although owners of cars from the investor car companies can often avail of discounts.

Tesla, which is expanding its own “supercharger” network in Ireland, also has a pricing structure. The cost is paid through a customer’s Tesla account, and they receive a certain amount of free charging, depending on which Tesla model they have purchased. The cost, in Ireland, is €0.29 per kW, which would suggest an empty-to-full cost of €22.91 for a Tesla Model 3 Long Range with its 79kWh battery, or €29.00 for a Tesla Model S Long Range with its 100kWh battery.

Charging speeds are much better than rivals, though, and Tesla is currently installing 250kW superchargers in the US.

Of course, if you want free charging, there are still the ESB slower chargers with up to 22kW on offer, and you could also pop along to a Lidl car-park. The discount supermarket chain is rolling out (slow-speed) electric car chargers at its premises, and Lidl claims that each of its charging points currently provides, on average, 100km worth of free charge per visit. It says its chargers in Drogheda are currently pumping out 4,000km of charge per week. - Neil Briscoe 

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times