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Electric cars: Is Ireland, and the world, ready for them?

Britain has vowed to “end the sale of all conventional petrol and diesel cars” by 2040.

90188304 An electric car charging Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

MANY COUNTRIES, INCLUDING Ireland, are expecting to see an increase in the sale of electric cars in coming years.

Fossil fuel in cars could be phased out within decades, in a bid to cut global emissions and tackle the adverse effects of climate change.

On Wednesday, Britain said it would “end the sale of all conventional petrol and diesel cars” by 2040, following similar proposals by France earlier this month to reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.

In its National Mitigation Plan, which was published on 19 July, the Irish government noted it is “committed to reducing emissions and building a climate resilient low carbon transport sector by 2050″.

The Climate Change Advisory Council supports phasing out petrol and diesel cars but has warned that the government could lose billions in revenue every year if electric cars become more popular than traditional vehicles due to a reduction in excise income on petrol and diesel, and lower car taxes.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) offers grants of up to €5,000 to people who buy electric cars. However, as the initial cost of an electric car is often higher than the equivalent diesel or petrol vehicle, it’s still too expensive for many drivers.

The mitigation plan states that, based on current information, “a full electrification of the car fleet could represent a feasible option for Ireland, where supporting grid infrastructure is developed”.

“While there are no certainties in predicting future technologies, there are strong indications from car manufacturers and energy market analysts that mass market adoption will happen for electric vehicles.

Advances in battery technology, increasing competition in the market and lower vehicle costs would suggest that electrification will be the predominant low carbon choice for transport, particularly for the private car, taxis and commercial vans.

“We can expect freight to be fuelled by a range of fuel types or combinations of such types as biogas, biofuels, electricity, hydrogen, CNG (compressed natural gas) and LNG (liquid natural gas). The level of contribution from biofuels is expected to have limits over the long term due to various resource constraints, demand/supply and land use issues.”

In 2008, the government set an initial target of 10% of the national car fleet (approximately 230,000 cars) being electric by 2020. In 2014, it was decided to revise this target downwards as the uptake of electric cars was lower than anticipated.

Last month, Eamonn Confrey, the Principal Officer of the Decarbonisation Policy Division in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, told the Oireachtas climate action committee that Ireland’s third national energy efficiency action plan “stated that approximately 50,000 electric vehicles could form part of the transport fleet in 2020″.

He continued: “In the light of technology and fuel price evolution, this figure has been further revised, consequent on analysis underpinning the national policy framework for alternative fuels infrastructure which forecast that there could be in the region of 20,000 electric vehicles in Ireland by 2020.”

This lower target seems unlikely to be met, however, as there are currently just over 2,000 electric cars on Irish roads.

International outlook 

A report released by Dutch bank ING earlier this month predicted that electric cars will account for all new vehicles sales in Europe by 2035.

China issued plans last year requiring that 12% of cars sold be battery-powered or plug-in hybrids by 2020, while India has said it wants to replace all vehicles with electric vehicles by 2030.

Norway hopes to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2025, and other countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland have expressed similar ambitions to phase out fossil fuel engines.

“Given the rate of improvement in battery and electric vehicle technology over the last 10 years, by 2040 small combustion engines in private cars could well have disappeared without any government intervention,” Alastair Lewis, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York in England, said.

“Nonetheless [this week's announcement] is highly symbolic since it signals to both the public and to manufacturers that there is no turning back from electrification,” he added.

Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management (CAM) in Germany, said that last year proved to be a “tipping point”, shifting political will into concrete commitments.

He highlighted the emissions scandal, where manufacturers of mainly diesel cars were found to have cheated on environmental tests.

Local and national environmental targets and the progress made by China in developing electric cars are also forces propelling the move away from hydrocarbons globally.

A ‘bold bet’ 

Flavien Neuvy, an economist at French automobile anlaysts Observatoire Cetelem, said it would be a “bold bet” to suggest that the roads will be filled with only electric cars by 2040.

“To say that we forbid combustion engines in 2040 assumes that we already know which will be the most efficient technology in 2040,” he told AFP.

It’s a bold bet because the combustion engine, from an environmental point of view, may become more favourable, as can be seen with cars that can now travel 100km on two litres of fuel.

He also believes that the electric car “will be much more efficient than today” and that an improvement from the current average range of 250-300km to 400-500km would be “enough” to make them viable.

“But in reality, there are many other fuels, such as gas, hydrogen, and manufacturers are investing heavily in the self-drive car,” he added.

Cost is also an issue, with electric cars currently selling for thousands of euro more than their fossil-fuelled counterparts.

Infrastructure overhaul 

According to the ESB, there are currently 1,200 public charging points for electric cars in Ireland. Every town with 1,500 inhabitants or more gets a charging point installed in that area. Throughout 2017, EBS is installing charging points at the homes of electric car drivers.

A survey conducted by the Green Party in conjunction with the Irish Electric Vehicle Owners Association found that drivers are happy about the savings they can make over time on fuel and lower maintenance and repairs costs. However, owners also expressed frustration at the limited charging infrastructure that is in place nationally.

As Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has pointed out, “some parts of the country are better served than others but there is still an issue”.  About 12% of the survey’s respondents had run out of power while they were on the road, with many saying a lack of charging points contributed to this. The driving range of electric cars varies depending on the model.

Britain currently has about 4,500 public charging points, catering for around 110,000 plug-in cars currently on the streets out of a total of 36.7 million registered vehicles.

A study last month by IVL, the Swedish Environment Institute, found that production of a large battery currently results in the emission of up to 17.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to around 700 hours of driving in a standard car.

Despite these issues, CAM predicts that new registrations of electric cars in the world will increase by between 2.5% and 6% by 2020. “A big offensive by manufacturers” would then lead to a 40% increase by 2030, CAM has stated.

 - With reporting from © AFP 2017

Read: UK to ban sale of all diesel and petrol cars by 2040 ‘to clean up dirty air on roads’

Read: Poll: Will your next car be an electric car?

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Órla Ryan

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