Driving to an electric future?

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Article Published 29 Aug 2017 Last modified 21 Mar 2023
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A quiet change is under way on European roads. The use of electric vehicles is projected to take off across Europe. It is a move that could help pave the way to a greener road transport system, but one that could pose challenges in meeting energy demand and investing in relevant infrastructure.

If annual car shows are anything to go by, battery-powered electric vehicles are about to enter the mass market, thanks to rapid advances in technology and the expected drop in prices of new models in the coming years due to cheaper battery systems. Car manufacturers are taking advantage of the growing demand for greener, less polluting cars in the wake of increased health concerns linked to air pollution. Leading car manufacturers are claiming that newer battery-powered electric models are more reliable and durable. Air quality concerns have also dented the public’s appetite for diesel-powered vehicles.

Sales of battery-powered electric vehicles across the European Union (EU) have followed a steep upwards trend since 2008 and increased by 49 % in 2015 compared with 2014 sales. Despite slower growth in 2016, this upwards trend is expected to continue in the long term. However, diesel- and petrol-powered cars remain the kings of the road. Overall, in 2016, 49.4 % of all new passenger cars registered in the EU used diesel and 47 % used petrol. Electric battery-powered and plug-in hybrid vehicles together still represent a small fraction of total sales, accounting for 1.1 % of all new cars sold in the EU. Based on today’s market, the future market share for new electric vehicles is expected to be 2-8 % by 2020-2025.

Several studies have concluded that cost remains the top reason why consumers are not yet fully embracing electric vehicles, as well as the reliability of the new technology. Concerns over vehicle range and battery life expectancy, charging availability and costs of ownership, including taxes and maintenance, also remain an issue.

Pulling the plug on petrol

Despite these challenges, vehicles powered by electricity are promoted as a key contributor to building a sustainable mobility system and are set to shake up Europe’s long-time reliance on the internal combustion engine and oil to power its transport needs. The increased uptake of electric vehicles, in particular when powered by renewable energy sources, can play an important role in the EU’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 % by 2050 and to move towards a low-carbon future.

Vehicles powered by electricity are generally much more energy efficient than those powered by fossil fuels. Depending on how the electricity is produced, increased use of battery-powered electric cars can result in considerably lower emissions of carbon dioxide and the air pollutants nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (PM), which have been the main causes of air quality problems in many of Europe’s cities.

Of all European countries, Norway is leading the way in embracing electric cars. There are now over 100 000 electric vehicles in use in Norway and the country’s electric vehicle association aims to increase that number to 400 000 by 2020. In many European countries, the increase in the uptake of electric cars is thanks to the many incentives and subsidies available to lure car drivers to go green, including tax exemptions, charging discounts and free parking for electric cars. Such support schemes have a major impact on sales. After tax incentives and subsidies were cut in the Netherlands and Denmark in 2016, the sales of plug-in hybrid and battery-powered electric cars dropped significantly. Denmark, however, reintroduced some tax incentives in 2017 to boost sales.

Impacts on air quality and climate change

A boom in electric vehicle use will result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality in city centres and key transport corridors. However, the rise in demand for electricity to power cars will pose a different type of challenge for energy providers. An EEA analysis suggests that if the use of electric vehicles reaches 80 % by 2050, this would require an additional 150 gigawatts of electricity for charging them. Europe’s total electricity consumption by electric vehicles would increase from approximately 0.03 % in 2014 to 9.5 % in 2050.

Depending on the source of the electricity used, the positive effects on climate and air quality could be offset by additional emissions from the energy sector involved. Emission increases would be more noticeable if the extra energy demand is met by electricity from coal-powered plants. The increased use of coal in power generation in some regions could result in additional sulphur dioxide emissions. However, overall, the carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions from road transport that would be avoided are estimated to outweigh the higher emissions from electricity generation at EU level.

E-boom risks drain on the grid

An e-boom could also pose a tough challenge for the existing electricity infrastructure and grids to handle, especially in countries using more electricity from renewable sources. Most national grids are currently ill equipped to handle a wider use of battery-powered vehicles and   many countries lack the proper infrastructure to support recharging. Most countries in Europe have only a few thousand public charging points and they are mostly only slow-charging sources — which allow vehicle charging using common household lower voltage AC (alternating current) sockets and cables. Fast-charging sources, on the other hand, deliver higher voltage DC (direct current), allowing for much quicker charging. However, this is more costly and more electricity is lost during charging transfers.

There are also fears that most people would plug in their drained cars after work, which would put additional stress on energy grids at certain peak periods of the day. However, newer electric cars can be programmed to charge at certain times, rather than charging automatically when plugged in. For example, as part a research project using a ‘vehicle-to-grid’ system in the UK, the national grid will be able to draw power from car batteries at peak times as a way of balancing supply and demand and, at the same time, ensuring that the cars are fully recharged by the morning. The EU is supporting the construction and upgrading of transport infrastructure across Europe to speed up the installation of recharging points on key roads.

The road ahead

Given all these challenges, is electrifying our road transport system realistic? Policymakers, including European governments and the European Commission, as well as some car manufacturers and power sector operators, seem to think so. Electric cars powered by renewable energy sources can play a big role in moving towards greener, more sustainable road transport. Clearly, such a shift alone will not address all the current problems, such as congestion, parking and building and repairing roads, currently faced by our cities and will it not be sufficient to meet the EU’s goal of moving to a low-carbon economy.

Recent polls suggest that there is an increased public awareness of the need to switch to electric vehicles to lower air pollution levels and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Replacing diesel trucks with electric vehicles for urban deliveries could certainly help to improve air quality in cities. The introduction of car-sharing programmes in various European cities also suggests that people are starting to question whether or not car ownership is an essential part of their lifestyle as other mobility options become more convenient and, in most cases, less costly.

The EU and national governments have already passed legislation to encourage the development of lower emitting technologies in transport and to set targets for making recharging points accessible to the public. Industry, backed by EU loans and co-financing, is already starting to invest in building the needed fast recharging infrastructure along key highways across Europe, which will help to address reliability concerns. Big European energy companies see the next 5-10 years as key to ensuring that the infrastructure is in place to ensure the electrification of the transport sector.

Subsidies and other incentives, such as tax exemptions, have been introduced in several countries to make the purchase of electric vehicles more attractive. Local authorities at regional or city level have also been active, building special free parking spaces and recharging spots for electric cars in busy city centres, as well as exempting electric cars from road tolls or offering discounts. The energy sector, as well as some EU Member States, is also putting pressure on the EU to ensure that adequate plug-in infrastructure is built around workplaces and homes, as well as near city apartments. Increasing the ease and speed of charging is seen as key to a wider shift to electric cars.

Car manufacturers, for their part, have also started to invest in smartphone-based car-sharing schemes as another way to promote their electric vehicles. With battery ranges of 150-300 km under real-world driving conditions, electric cars are ideal for most car-sharing trips. Manufacturers are also investing in electric self-driving (autonomous) vehicles that could, according to experts, cut the number of cars in use in the future by as much as 90 %.

Some manufacturers have already started exploring electric vehicles as a means to transport road freight. The Swiss company E-Force is already producing all-electric trucks with a driving range of up to 300 km, to be used mainly in urban and interurban transport. Other manufacturers are following suit. Cities across Europe have started introducing electric buses on some of their public transport routes. What will the next breakthrough be — freight ships with solar panel sails or a combined rail and road infrastructure that would allow all transport on land to be powered by clean electricity. A solar-powered plane has already been invented and has completed its 40 000 km flight around the world.

Range of life-cycle CO2 emissions for different vehicle and fuel types

Charging times for a 100 km drive



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