I have noticed that there is considerable optimism in some quarters about the future of electric cars, and many people are pointing to Norway as a sign that the internal combustion engine may be on the way out:
Norway may seem like an odd place for electric cars to thrive, but the 1,493 Tesla Model S new registrations last month set a new single-model sales record. That’s more than sales of the two next-best selling models, the Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Leaf, combined. In fact, so far this year, the Tesla Model S is the best-selling car in a cold country that has quickly warmed to electric vehicles.
Only when you look a bit closer you find the underlying reason as to why Norwegians have taken to the Tesla in such numbers:
Unlike many European countries, where electric cars carry a huge price premium, there is no import tax or 25% VAT tax on [electric vehicles] in Norway.
And that reason is the government has, through taxation (particularly import taxes, which are a function of horsepower), made the price of ordinary cars artificially high. From Wikipedia:
As an example, by early 2013 the price of the top selling Nissan Leaf is 240,690 krone (around US$42,500) while the purchase price of the 1.3-lt Volkswagen Golf is 238,000 Krone (about US$42,000). Electric vehicles are also exempt from the annual road tax, all public parking fees, and toll payments, as well as being able to use bus lanes.
Plus what gets left out of the purchasing figures in Norway is how many of these cars are bought by government departments for whom image is more important than value for money.
Personally, I am of the belief that the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway doesn’t tell us anything about the future viability of electric cars. When you look at the development of the motorcar in the US between the wars, the boom was driven by an overwhelming desire of individuals to move around freely and independently, and the car companies rushed to meet that demand whilst the oil companies competed with one another to build the infrastructure to support it. I can’t think of anything further from this situation than a government taxing the hell out of something and shoving a population in the direction of their chosen product. Would Norwegians be buying Teslas if ordinary cars were reasonably priced? According to this Reuter’s article, Norway’s electric cars require an annual public subsidy of up to $8,200. This is the future?
What we have here is a government picking a winner, and this rarely ends well. The underlying assumption is that everyone driving electric cars is a desirable end, and I’m not convinced this has been proven. Norway registered about 11,000 electrical vehicles in 2013, which might make Oslo’s air a bit cleaner and the streets quieter, but is in no way indicative of what might arise should even half of Norway’s 5m inhabitants eventually switch to electric cars. 11,000 electric cars quietly charging themselves off the grid at night won’t make much difference, but 2.5m of them? You’re going to need a lot more power stations to cope with that sort of demand, and although Norway currently produces around 96% of its electricity using hydroelectric power it is far from certain that they would not need conventional power stations to meet the increased requirements. In any case, it is somewhat unlikely that other countries, should they choose to emulate Norway in this regard, would be able to meet the increased demands using renewable energy sources.
In fact, the whole drive to use electric cars seems at odds with campaigns by Green organisations and politicians who are constantly nagging us to save negligible amounts of energy by unplugging phone chargers and not using TVs on standby mode. I think when most people talk of electric cars, they think charging them is simply a matter of plugging them into a grid which is already in place, and I suppose this is true while their numbers remain small. But an increase in just one order of magnitude – let alone two or three – is going to require a complete overhaul of the electricity generation infrastructure in a manner which is going to render unplugging phone chargers even more negligible than it is now.
Just where is this additional power going to come from? Wind is a non-starter, suffering from the same physical limitations the Dutch faced on their windmills a couple of hundred years ago. Tidal sounds great, except it is mind-bogglingly expensive to construct and maintain, and wrecks the local environment. Wave power suffers from the difficulty of converting uneven, irregular reciprocal motion into rotary motion and the fact that any wave powerful enough to be of any use is likely to have a big brother in the vicinity which will destroy any device used to harness its power. Solar has potential, but the technology is likely a few decades away yet. In 40+ years time I can envisage an efficient system whereby solar power is used to generate energy which is stored in cells, and converted to electricity in cars which is then used to power a motor. But even with huge leaps in solar technology I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where:
Solar > electricity > battery > motor
is an improvement over:
Petrol > engine
either in terms of efficiency or overall effect on the global environment. Not even close. As I say, perhaps this might work:
Solar > energy cell > electricity> motor
with the energy cells being instantly replaceable, but until then I think this whole electric car concept is dead in the water.
Aside from the economics, the enormous appeal of the motor car is its flexibility, a large part of which it is its near-permanent availability. The electric car, as currently envisaged, does away with this as it is unavailable for several hours while it charges. Unless one can predict exactly when the car will be used and for how long then it won’t be much use, and although in theory this sounds ideal for regular commuting the shortcomings of such a system quickly become clear.
Even those who use their cars mainly for commuting also use them for unplanned or irregular trips, e.g. at weekends or in emergencies. The non-availability of an expensive asset will become an issue to even the most organised of citizens, and some might even keep an ordinary car as a spare. And supposing you hit traffic on the way to work? You can switch off the car and conserve your battery, but let’s hope you don’t live anywhere too hot or too cold (like Norway!) otherwise it’s not going to be very comfortable. One of the beauties of the internal combustion engine is the waste heat means even the crappest of crap cars is warm; people don’t realise how damned cold a car would be without the engine pumping out heat, and to generate the equivalent amount of heat from a battery will eat into the range considerably. According to this calculator driving with an outside temperature of 21°C with no heater gives you a range of 283 miles; drop the temperature to zero and put the heater on and you’re at 234 miles, a reduction of 17% (and 27% with the smaller 60kWh battery). And that’s for a new car, that reduction will increase only as the battery and heating elements start to wear. You could find yourself thinking you’ve got enough juice to get to where you want to, and then hit traffic and find your destination is outside your range. The advantage of the internal combustion engine is that they burn little fuel when the vehicle is stationary yet keep you warm with no additional fuel cost.
The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range. The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours. If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again. Anyone who relies on an electric car to complete a journey within 20-30% of the maximum range is going to have to be very well organised – which most people aren’t, particularly when it comes to travelling by car – and have luck on their side as well. The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet. Until electric cars can overcome this issue, perhaps by using instantly replaceable energy cells instead of recharging, I don’t think they’re going to make even a dent in the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.
Whatever the Norwegians think they’re doing, game-changing it ain’t. I give it a year or two before we start seeing news reports of electric cars found abandoned by their owners between Bergen and Stavanger due to a flat battery and a desire to sleep somewhere warm that night.