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Full speed ahead

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The European Commission has proposed a new scheme that would dramatically increase the number of electric charging points across Europe. Could this catapult the electric car onto the market?

 

Europe is pushing the pedal. On 24 January, the European Commission, which proposes legislation to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, announced a scheme that will legally commit member nations to build a total of nearly 800,000 publically accessible electric charging points. The current number is below 12,000. If the infrastructure comes into place, it says, manufactures will start mass-producing electric cars. This will in turn lower their price, and people will buy them.

The European Union’s (EU) policy on electric cars has so far been, by its own admission, “uncoordinated and insufficient”. Here it holds nothing back. In terms of electric charging points, its leading members, based on 2011 figures, are Germany (1,937), the Netherlands (1,700), France (1,600), Spain (1,356), Portugal and Italy (both 1,350). However, if the plan, dubbed ‘The Clean Power for Transport Package’, is introduced, and implemented by all countries within the deadline of 31 December 2020, the same list will look something like this: Germany (150,000), Italy (125,000), Great Britain (122,000), France (97,000). The total cost of developing these charging points? Around €8billion (£6,85billion or $10,75billion).

Public money needs not be spent. Governments are advised to adjust regulations and encourage private investment. To improve efficiency, the charging points will be standardised. Currently, two rival types compete, meaning that cars driving from Paris to Berlin cannot be recharged in both countries. The scheme, the EU says, will solve what it calls a ‘vicious circle’: that the cost of electric cars is too high, which means nobody buys them, which again means nobody wants to produce them. “We can finally stop the chicken-and-the-egg discussion on whether infrastructure needs to be there before the large-scale rollout of electric vehicles,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action.

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There is agreement that the European transport sector needs alternative sources of fuel. Today it depends 94 per cent on oil. Of that, 84,3 per cent is imported, costing the EU €1million per day (£860,000 or $1,35million). While it is technically possible to meet the fuel demands with liquid biofuels, the feedstock is too scarce to produce sufficient volumes. Alternative sources are needed. Especially if the EU wants to meet its target of reducing CO2 emissions by 60 per cent within 2050, based on 1990 levels.

And so investing in electricity, renewable from so many natural sources, may not be a bad idea. “Developing innovative and alternative fuels is an obvious way to make Europe’s economy more resource efficient, to reduce our overdependence on oil and develop a transport industry which is ready to respond to the demands of the 21st century,” said Siim Kallas, the European commissioner for transport.

Some climate-oriented NGOs have responded to the move with cautious optimism. Jos Dings, director at Transport & Environment, called it “a small, but largely welcome, step towards breaking the monopoly of oil and biofuels that cause climate change”. He added: “With this proposal in place, we should move full throttle in setting ambitious CO2 standards for cars and vans for 2020 and 2025, so that car makers will actually make the vehicles that will use this infrastructure.”

This point is rather crucial: manufacturers will need to actually make the cars. The current European leaders in the number of electric cars are Germany (1,858), France (1,796), Norway (1,547) and Great Britain (1,170). Compared to elsewhere in the world, that is sparse: the United States has nearly 20,000, while Japan has more than 7,500. Compared to other car types, it is only a fraction: the European car fleet currently stands at more than 200 million. Yet should the scheme be deployed, the EU plans for its members to have the following numbers of electric vehicles by 2020: Spain (2,5 million), France (2 million), Great Britain (more than 1,5 million), Germany (1 million).

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But will the number of cars increase as the charging points are installed? That depends on the investment. What is certain is that no matter how many cars are produced, they will not survive if people do not buy them. And for that to happen, prices must fall. “The money needs to go the consumer in one way or another,” says Ben Lane, director of Next Green Car and founding director of Sustainable Transport Solutions.So if the vehicle is subsidised, either on the consumer side or the production side, then that’s more likely to increase sales.”

Lane says there is not necessarily a connection between more charging points and cheaper cars. But should the project succeed in reducing the cars’ price with, say, 30 per cent, people will consider their options. “Electric cars have a very good driving performance,” he says. “They accelerate very fast and are quiet. So there are a lot of plusses as far as the experience is concerned. If you get that 30 per cent reduction in price, I think people would seriously consider an electric vehicle when the time comes for their next purchase.”

Photos: Evocation Images, Artens, jorisvo [all via Shutterstock.com].

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