Ireland has an opportunity to position itself as a leader in an emerging technology, or perhaps a reemerging one. All it takes is political vision, a willingness to face down some entrenched local vested interests and a desire to make a change. This of course means it wont happen, but we can dream!
Electric cars are not new. They predate by half a century the internal combustion motor, with model electric cars made in Hungary in 1828 and in Vermont in 1834. The middle and late 19c saw an explosion of electic trams, cars, trains and so on. Even the Ford company, in conjunction with Edison, made significant investments into electric cars. Battery life rechargability speed , then as now, were significant concerns. The sales of electric vehicles, with the USA in the lead, peaked in the run up to WWI. Post WWI cheap petroleum, longer average trips and the lack of a comprehensive charging network made electric vehicles less and less popular. However, the tide may now be turning.
It’s a good thing, internal combustion vehicles already a account for a significant part of our emissions footprint. The EPA estimates that approximately 20% of Ireland’s total carbon dioxide emissions arise from the transport sector. While clearly not all of this is attributable 2 or could be reduced by private cars moving towards electric vehicles it would undoubtedly help.
Motor manufacturers and governments are also getting on board. Volvo recently became the first major motor manufacturer to announce that it will no longer develop, not quite the same as no longer building, internal combustion vehicles. This is a signal however that Volvo will eventually cease production of petrol and diesel cars, as product lines run towards the conclusion. The French government has announced that he wishes to see sales of internal combustion vehicles cease by 2040. In China the Beijing City authorities have announced their intention to convert their entire 70,000 strong taxi fleet to electric vehicles. Cities are transferring, all around the world, to electric vehicles.
Globally there is a perception beginning to grow that we may have reached an inflection points in terms of electric vehicles. The Dutch bank ING has recently forecast that all new European passenger vehicles sold in 2035 may well be electric or hybrid. Global growth will also accelerate. Battery technology, long seen as a rather dull and mature area, has undergone a renaissance. Large-scale investment into both research and development and manufacturing is dramatically reducing the price and increasing storage capacity of batteries. The final piece of the puzzle is in relation to the fuel source. There is little point in transferring to electric vehicles if the electricity used to power them is not in and of itself low carbon. In Ireland north of 25% of total electricity usage comes from renewables. This trend has been increasing, will increase, and must increase.
The adoption of electric vehicles and Ireland has been slow. In 2008 the then coalition including the Green party announced ambitious and to have one in 10 of all Irish vehicles, some 200,000 vehicles, to be electric. Despite this, and despite Government support less than 1% all vehicles sold at pure electric, and just a little over 1% are electric/petrol hybrid. Range anxiety and charge time remain a concern for many. Indeed the issue of range and charging was the main reason identified by the AA in its regular survey.
So what then should Ireland to do in order to ensure that it gets towards the front of the pack in relation to Electric vehicles? Electric vehicles already attract governments subvention. The vehicle registration tax is, for the most part, waived for electric vehicles. The electricity Supply board has, on its own behalf and working with others, created a series of charging points. For quite some time these were free to use. Electric vehicles for personal use are in the lowest band for motor taxation.
One way in which the government could move forward the adoption of electric vehicles is to remove or reduce range anxiety. Dublin to Cork, Dublin to Belfast, Galway to Cork, Galway to Dublin, these are all around 200 km. It is only now that electric cars are beginning to reach and exceed that range on a single charge. While waiting for battery technology to stretch the range into the hundreds of kilometres we will need to rely on an infrastructure of charging points. Charging points coming number of varieties, and what is a nationwide comprehensive network of fast charging stations. These will typically take your car from a local charge to a Full charge in 30 to 60 minutes. So palatable to be quite as fast as filling the car with diesel having to stop for half an hour comma Take some time, have a cup of coffee, take a break is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem we have at the moment is that there are only about 70 of these fast chargers nationwide, mainly concentrated along the motorway network.
One way forward might be for the government to utilize the existing excise licensing system. A license, annually renewed, is required to sell petrol or diesel. A simple change in the licensing conditions, Combined with some imaginative tax breaks, could result in the rapid rollout of a truly nationwide System of a fast charging stations. Right now one can drive a petrol or diesel car anywhere in the country and be fairly confident that if your fuel light starts to blink your not too far from the ability to fill up. This is absolutely not the case for electric cars. So here’s my proposal: for every two fuel pumps, diesel or petrol, make the granting of the excise license to sell this fuel contingent on the installation of one fast charging station for electric vehicles. As a sweetener exempt the installation and purchase of these chargers from VAT, make it clear this will last for 3 to 5 years. Without a shadow of a doubt forecourt retailers will scream, but these screens should be ignored as the reality is that they will have much greater opportunities to sell coffee and biscuits and burgers and Crisps and all sorts of on the road comestibles to drivers as they wait for their vehicles to charge.
Auto manufacturers know that the infrastructure is essential in order to increase penetration of electric vehicles. This is why Tesla, perhaps the most innovative auto manufacturer in the world right now, are pushing ahead with their own fast charge network. Rather than waiting for the market to provide, we need to take this is similar to the rural electrification. A judicious mix of carrot and stick could see the rollout of a dense infrastructure of electric vehicle charging points in Ireland by the end of this decade. Truly in this case if you build it they will come.