slo, Norway’s capital, like most of the Scandinavian country’s cities and towns, boasts bus-lane access for electric vehicles (EVs), recharging stations aplenty, privileged parking, and toll-free travel for electric cars. The initiative began in the 1990s as an effort to cut pollution, congestion, and noise in urban centres; now its primary rationale is combating climate change. Today, Norway has the highest per capita number of all-electric [battery only] cars in the world: more than 100,000 in a country of 5.2 million people. Last year, EVs constituted nearly 40% of the nation’s newly registered passenger cars.
And the Norwegian experiment shows every sign of accelerating. Earlier this year, Norway opened the world’s largest fast-charging station, which can charge up to 28 vehicles in about half an hour. The country, joined by Europe’s No 2 in electromobility, the Netherlands, intends to phase out all fossil fuel-powered automobiles by 2025. Elon Musk, CEO of the US electric car company Tesla Motors, responded to Norway’s goal by tweeting: “What an amazingly awesome country. You guys rock!”
Norway is the clear electric vehicle pacesetter in Europe, which now has about 500,000 electric vehicles. China leads the world in EV usage, with about 600,000 all-electric vehicles on its roads and an ambitious plan to deploy 5m EVs by 2020. The US ranks third globally, with fewer than 500,000 EVs. But electric vehicle momentum is picking up in the US, as evidenced by the 400,000 people who have paid $1,000 to be on the waiting list for Tesla’s $35,000 Model 3 car.
Nevertheless, because of rapid technological advances and strong government support for EVs in Europe and China, experts maintain that a new era in electromobility is dawning – and that this time there’s more to the prediction than industry optimism.
“We’re convinced that Europe and other continents, too, are now turning the corner on e-mobility,” says Lars Mönch of Germany’s Federal Environment Agency. “It’s the aim of all big cities worldwide to ambitiously tackle the climate and urban congestion issues that they all face.” Referring to the provisions of theParis agreement on climate change, in which nations pledged emissions cuts aimed at holding temperature increases below 2C, Mönch added, “There are goals now for the transportation sector that can only be met with alternative forms of mobility.”
Norway illustrates that with incentives that eliminate the price advantage of conventional gas-burning vehicles, many people will go for the electric option. “It works, absolutely,” says Martin Norman of Greenpeace Norway, who has driven an EV since 2004. “It’s clearly feasible, especially in urban areas. We’ve found that the range of EVs is enough for most of what people need.” And since 98 % of Norway’s electricity comes from hydropower, the country’s burgeoning EV fleet leaves almost no carbon footprint.
Many European experts and industry representatives see the Norwegian model – minus the whopping subsidies – as a sign of where European electromobility is heading. Magdalena Jozwicka of the European Environment Agency, a Copenhagen-based EU body, says the EU looks to non-EU member Norway for inspiration. Even though it’s highly subsidised, e-mobility in Norway has caught fire on account of its own virtues, she says, noting its contribution to air quality, its quiet, and the many perks that e-cars enjoy.
“People aren’t just using them as hobby cars for city shopping anymore,” she says. “They’re switching to full e-mobility because it’s possible now.”
Thanks to its lucrative offshore oil and natural gas business, Norway can afford to promote e-mobility with generous incentives, including the considerable bonus of exemption from a 25% sales tax. Norway’s access to abundant and cheap zero-emission hydroelectric power means it can even offer e-car owners free power charging at public charging stations.
In Europe, transportation is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. And while Europe’s industrial emissions have fallen by 38% since 1990, those in the transportation sector – including aviation – have increased by 9%.
The 2015 Paris climate accord and follow-up agreements stipulate that every signatory country propose national goals for climate protection, including – explicitly for the first time – for the transportation sector. Moreover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation will “increase by 120% from 2000 to 2050 as a result of a projected three-fold increase” in the number of cars worldwide. Some industry and advocacy groups have set a global deployment target of 100m electric cars and 400m electric motorcycles and scooters by 2030.
The upbeat assessments about e-mobility’s future are grounded in recent developments, including rapid advances in EV technology and China’s new-found commitment to decarbonisation. Moreover, 2016 saw a surge in EV sales globally — 30% more than in 2015 — and an expansion of charging infrastructure, both trends that will carry into 2017 and probably beyond. Europe’s most popular EVs were three all-electric plug-ins — the BMW i3, Renault Zoe, and Nissan Leaf, as well as Mitsubishi’s plug-in hybrid, Outlander.
Falling prices for EVs and recent technological developments— several of them led by Tesla — have changed the game. For one, the cost of lithium-ion batteries, which account for about 40% of an EV or hybrid vehicle’s cost, has fallen by two-thirds since 2010 — much faster than experts had anticipated and with further steep reductions expected in the near future. Six years ago, the average EV battery sold for more than $1,000 per kilowatt-hour; now it goes for less than $350. It could drop to as low as $125 in the near future, industry experts say.
Beijing: carmakers in the US and Europe consider China their most important market for electric vehicle sales. Photograph: Sean Gallagher
This drop in battery price is reflected in the lower price tags on the newest models. The latest Chevy Bolt sells for around $37,500, and the price tag of the BMWi3 is about $38,500.
A second generation of EVs is in production now and they are considerably lighter, longer-range automobiles than those launched five years ago. With the shock of Tesla’s unexpected advances, European car manufacturers have invested heavily in the forthcoming EVs, convinced that they either do so or lose out in the long run.
“We’re now flipping the switch,” said Daimler’s CEO Dieter Zetsche last year. “We’re ready for the launch of an electric product offensive that will cover all vehicle segments, from the compact to the luxury class.” European car makers have also lobbied forcefully for governments to provide bigger rebates and tax incentives in different forms to stimulate the domestic markets.
However, even a range exceeding 200 miles doesn’t alleviate the necessity for periodically recharging. The frequency of – and distance between– charging facilities has long been, and remains, one of the key sticking points that make potential buyers hesitate. Charging infrastructure in Europe has grown since 2013 at a rate of 30% to 60% a year. The continent now has more than 100,000 charging spots, all but a few thousand of them “slow chargers”, which take as long as eight hours to juice up a battery.
Significantly reducing charging times is essential to the widespread adoption of EVs, and Europe has recently added 1,300 DC “fast chargers” to the network, namely stations that repower EVs in little more time that it takes to fill up with gas. But, unless you’re in Scandinavia, it’s still difficult to travel long distances inEurope with an all-electric plug-in vehicle.
This article was updated on 8 February 2017. The original had said that the EEA was based in Brussels; it is actually based in Copenhagen.