Ireland leading a weak charge on electric vehicles

With Volvo to abandon fossil-fuel cars, how does Ireland rate on embracing electric cars?

A Volvo hybrid car connected to a charging point: Vehicle charging will have to be commercialised, the ESB has flagged. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

A Volvo hybrid car connected to a charging point: Vehicle charging will have to be commercialised, the ESB has flagged. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

 

When considering global failures to adequately address climate change, missed targets are never far away. But some sectors are delivering: notably the generation of “renewables” such as solar power and wind energy. The electric car or electric vehicle (EV) is also a star performer.

The EV has a lot of benefits. Its widespread use in cities delivers cleaner air and fewer deaths from toxic compounds. Once acquired, it is the cheapest form of light vehicle transport. And it is one of the single most effective means of reducing CO2 emissions.

But is has low status in Ireland. How its use is currently supported (to a limited extent), and how it fits (poorly) within the collective commitment to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are indicative of national policies that are disjointed and lacking ambition.

Soon there will be no place to hide, for EV uptake is becoming a key element in a country’s green report card – Sweden will get great credit for Volvo’s move.

Charging infrastructure

In Ireland there are a mere 3,000 electric vehicle or hybrids, ie electric cars which also use another fuel source on Irish roads. Courtesy of the ESB, we have been pioneers in setting up a modern charging infrastructure. Today there are 25 unique EV models available – two were on the market when EV grants were introduced in 2011.

Ireland has committed to a target that, by 2030, all new cars and vans sold in the country will be “zero-emissions capable”.

In 2008, the government outlined plans for an initial target of 10 per cent of the car fleet, approximately 230,000 cars, to be electric by 2020. Come 2014, it was revised downwards to 50,000 EVs “to better reflect the prevailing macroeconomic climate” and a lower level of EV uptake than anticipated. This year the Government weighed up factors such as technology; “fuel price evolution” and “alternative fuels infrastructure”, and the target became 20,000 EVs.

Reduced Irish targets contrast with elsewhere: Norway has 140,000 EVs, the UK 100,000 EVs and the Netherlands 110,000 EVs. Moreover, Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens are to ban diesel vehicles by 2025 for air quality reasons.

Our failure to deliver on targets and a lack of consumer buy-in were articulated recently at a three-hour session of the Dáil Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

For Ireland to meet its climate change goals, decarbonisation of the transport sector needs to proceed rapidly, ESB head of smart energy technologies Denis O’Leary told the committee. EVs, because they can use energy generated from renewable sources, would allow Ireland strengthen its fuel security and reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels.

The Irish Electric Vehicle Owners’ Association is well-positioned to chart a way forward. “We need to aggressively promote and encourage EVs, especially battery electric vehicles. While hybrids have their place, they are a transition technology. Eventually, we are all going to move to fully electric vehicles,” its chairman Frank Barr predicted.

Colleague Dave McCabe added: “EVs can meet 90 per cent of people’s requirements for private motoring. The debate is over.”

The sweeteners

Current incentives to encourage purchase of EVs are the “key decider” but the mix needs sweetening if there is any chance to reach 2020 targets. “The grant given towards purchase price is good and the installation of the home chargers by the ESB is also important. They both need to be continued for a substantial amount of time,” Barr added.

Disincentives persist but “one can get around most of the country relatively easily now”. Parking difficulties at charging points have eased, though queues can arise, and Volvo’s move will inevitably increase demand.

A three-year period with free parking while charging, and free or reduced tolls coupled with an information campaign on the benefits of EVs could have a dramatic impact on EV sales, O’Leary said. Factor in rapid advancement in battery and car technology, and a major shift in consumer behaviour is realisable.

Vehicle charging will have to be commercialised, the ESB has flagged. It set up the infrastructure and has spent close to €30 million since 2010. It costs €4 million to run annually.

The ESB is not going to invest further in the system unless there is clarity on this – the Commission for Energy Regulation is to give its verdict shortly. “Two or three years ago, it was going to commercialise it with a price structure that would have destroyed sales of EVs in Ireland,” Barr noted.

Demise of diesel

Society of Irish Motor Industry director general Alan Nolan was unequivocal in supporting development of “considered and balanced environmental strategies that can help deliver lower CO2, better air quality and more sustainable transport”.

Road tax changes in 2008 focused solely on CO2. There are more issues at play now – the demise of diesel included – but that should be seen as success in engaging consumers in making better environmental choices in buying cars, Nolan said.

Committee members Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan gave frank assessments. “We are probably at about 1 per cent of where we had intended to be when we started,” Dooley said. “All of us around the table have failed abysmally to make any meaningful impact on achieving climate change targets in transport. What we need is a phenomenal level of disruption in the cosiness that we have all effectively been part of.”

Dooley said he detected “the dead hand of the Department of Finance which will be slow to give up on money that comes from VRT and other taxes. It’s the cash cow and bears a resemblance to the tobacco industry.”

Ryan said: “We are faffing around and decreasing our targets when other countries are ramping up ambition. The German target is to have one million EVs by 2020. It proposes to invest €500 million in its network. Holland proposes to ban combustion engines by 2025.”

Revising targets upwards and a ban on combustion engines by 2025 would be a good start, he said. “We import €6 billion of fossil fuel. If we go gang-busters on EVs, we can cut back a good chunk of that.”