Power trip: Why we're still a world away from everyone driving electric cars
We're all aware electric cars are better for the planet but they account for less than 4pc of the market. John Meagher finds out why
Graeme Kelly loved driving his Nissan Leaf. It was gloriously silent, a world away from the fossil-fuel cars he had been used to.
After a week behind the wheel, he thought there was no way he would return to a vehicle not powered by electricity. The future had arrived and he could take comfort in knowing that he was doing his bit to reduce his carbon footprint.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Fast-forward a few years, and Dublin-based Kelly is no longer driving a fully electric car. Now, there's a Kia Niro in his driveway. It's a hybrid with a plug-in component. It's capable of a remarkable 150mpg and it may be the next best thing, but it's not an out-and-out electric model.
"I'd wanted to stay with electric," he says, "but the fast-charge infrastructure simply isn't good enough and even though there were many promises over the years, the network is still a long way off where it should be.
"At first, there weren't many electric vehicles (EVs) so there wasn't a long queue at the charge points. But as the numbers grew, that changed and there were constant delays. And the roll-out of charging stations simply hasn't kept up with the increase in the number of EVs, and when you'd go to use one, there was a reasonable chance it wasn't working. It was frustrating."
The infrastructure issue
Alan O'Reilly was also frustrated by the experience. He, too, used to drive a Nissan Leaf - a first generation variant - but the shortage of charging points meant he constantly felt a sense of range anxiety, especially due to the fact that he lives in Co Carlow.
"It was a great car, but at 24 kilowatts, its battery didn't have the range capability that many EVs on the road do today. That wouldn't have been a problem if there were lots of places to charge, but there still aren't nearly enough, and yet the Government is talking about a huge increase in electric car usage. That wouldn't be achievable unless there is a radical improvement in the infrastructure."
Three years ago, he returned his Leaf to Nissan and went back to driving a diesel car. "Once the infrastructure has improved, I will go electric again," he says.
This week's Budget - seen by some as one that was centred on the environment - saw expected increases in diesel and petrol prices as well as a new emissions tax. But the extra €3m allocated (€6m in total for 2020) to extending the electric charging network has been criticised of falling well short of what's required.
According to a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment: "Government grants have supported a five-fold increase in electric vehicle purchases since 2016. Budget 2020 will see €36m allocated in 2020 (compared to €18m in Budget 2019) to further incentivise uptake.
"We will double the number of home chargers installed and the fast charger network will also double in 2020. We will further roll-out the nationwide network of on-street chargers."
The spokesperson also points out that the Government will introduce new regulations to require new residential buildings to "install ducting to provide for the future installation of charge points in all parking spaces" and "from 2025, all non-residential buildings with more than 20 parking spaces will be required to install a minimum number of charge points."
But do such measures go far enough?
"To get to the number of charge points we need, requires huge investment," says motoring journalist Bob Flavin, who runs Ireland's most popular car reviews channel on YouTube. "There's a shortage of them throughout the country and especially in rural Ireland, and despite improvements in the batteries over the past few years, there's still a lot of fear over the unknown. Range-anxiety is still a factor."
An urban option
Flavin, who is based in Co Laois, says he sees few of the locals opting for EVs when it comes to changing their cars. "It's still seen as something for urban people - and when you consider the cost of many of the electric models, it's seen as something for wealthy people, too."
Geraldine Herbert - who is contributing editor and motoring correspondent with the Sunday Independent and runs the Wheels for Women website - said: "There's a huge variation in price between electric cars and the same petrol or diesel models.
"The Hyundai Kona - which is the country's bestselling electric car - is about €17,000 more expensive than the non-electric Kona and even when the government grants are applied, it's far more expensive. Price is a huge deterrent for would-be buyers."
Earlier the year, transport minister Shane Ross announced a government plan to increase the number of EVs to 840,000 by 2030 - 35 to 40pc of the anticipated total car population - but observers such as Herbert feel such a target cannot be achieved without wholesale state intervention.
"If you look at Norway, where there's a huge proportion of EVs on the road, the government there have intervened to ensure that electric models cost the same as the diesel and petrol ones do," according to Herbert. "That's taken a huge investment, but it's worked because people see that the prices are identical but the savings when it comes to running an electric car versus a regular one will be huge."
At present, some 50pc of all cars in Norway are electrically run and 70pc of all cars sold in the Oslo region are EVs. The country is planning to ban the sale of fossil-fuel models from 2025. Not only has it brought the purchase price into line with petrol, diesel and hybrid cars, but it has introduced several attractive measures such as bus lane usage and benefits for fleet operators and an enormous charging infrastructure.
Norway may have made its fortune thanks to oil, but it has led the way in renewable energy, and as far back as 1990 it put plans into place for a future in which electric cars would dominate the roads.
Ireland has a marathon to run to catch up. Less than 4pc of cars here are electrically powered and, when it comes to new car sales, for every one EV bought this year to date, a further six non-EV cars have been sold.
Some believe that when it comes to commitments to EVs, the Government is talking out of both sides of its mouth. There was a mystified reaction in the motor industry when it emerged in the Budget that the €3,800 SEAI incentive grant to encourage companies to buy electric cars would be stopped.
"As the whole-life costs of EVs reduce, the targeting of government grant support must be adjusted to reflect this," environment minister Richard Bruton said on Budget day. "Accordingly, the grant of up to €3,800 for businesses purchasing an electric car will be discontinued; the generous benefit-in-kind tax relief that is available for these vehicles is considered adequate incentive to drive growth in this sector."
Tom Cullen, deputy chief executive of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, says it's a decision that makes no sense.
"With the charge network as inadequate as it is at present, companies need every incentive they can get to go down this route," he says. "The grant was definitely helping to get fleet managers to think electric, and I think it will slow the EV growth which is a great pity.
"The grant has also been dropped for those moving to plug-in hybrid vehicles and that's very disappointing. For people coming from fossil-fuel cars, that's the stepping stone to purely electric. To get motorists to change habits and to think of a new way of fuelling their cars, they need to be as incentivised as much as possible. Otherwise, there's no chance of the hugely ambitious targets for 2030 being met. We need to think in the shorter term - what can we do to increase the EV population in 2025?"
In Ireland, fully electric cars only became a feature on our roads earlier this decade. The Nissan Leaf - awarded European Car of the Year for 2011 - was the model of choice for early adopters, but EV sales were sluggish until 2018. There has been a noticeable uptake in the past 18 months thanks to the arrival of cars like the Hyundai Kona - which, it is claimed - can cover 490km on a full charge.
There are other reasons why electric cars haven't taken off here in the sort of numbers that EV disciples might have hoped. There is still a shortage of stock coming into the country with the much-touted Tesla Model 3 arriving here much later than expected. Many of those who placed orders finally got their hands on the car earlier this month.
And, Bob Flavin believes, potential drivers are biding their time to see how the technology evolves. "The early models had very limited range and nobody wants to buy them second-hand," he says. "In a few years, the range went from about 150km to almost 500km, so what range will be possible four or five years down the line?"
Flavin believes Volkswagen - the world's biggest car brand - could provide the tipping point for the sceptical with the launch of its fully electric ID.3 next year. "Price is critical, but it has the potential to appeal to a huge audience," he says. "The key is affordability. At the moment, that's a big problem in Ireland."
The prohibitive price of buying a new EV is one of the reasons why Adam de Eyto has yet to make the move. The Meath man, who is head of the School of Design at the University of Limerick, cares passionately about living environmentally clean, but he doesn't - yet - drive an electric car.
De Eyto owns a 13-year-old Toyota Avensis, with almost 400,000km on the clock, and that's what he uses for his 160km round trip from his home in the Burren, Co Clare, to UL every day.
"It's not a simple matter of good versus bad," he says. "Because sustainability in design is one of my research areas. I've sat down and done a life-cycle analysis of using a 2006 diesel car versus the purchase of a new electric car, and the environmental impact benefit of driving an electric car is marginally better than to keep driving my 13-year-old diesel car.
"Of course there's much more CO2 and other emissions than there would be with an EV, but you have to weigh that up against a lithium ion battery, which has a huge environmental impact when it comes to extracting the lithium. You're trying to decide what the least worse option is."
For motorists like David Green, driving an EV is a no-brainer.
He bought his Hyundai Ioniq in 2017 and he has been grateful for the savings enjoyed when it comes to running an electric car, as well as the positives for the environment.
"35,000km later and only once did I have range anxiety and that was my own fault, not the car's," he wrote, in an email to Review following a social media appeal to speak to EV owners for this article. "I had forgotten to plan the trip."
"Range anxiety," he adds, "only happens to people who do not plan their journey. EVs are getting better, with bigger batteries and longer range. A lot more charging points need to be put in around the country, and when that happens, range anxiety will be a thing of the past."
Green says he did a lot of research before making the jump - and he has no regrets. "The savings I have made are big - going from spending €50 to €70 a week to less then €5 for fuel, and servicing has reduced from €170 to €60.
"I had conversations with family, friends and work colleagues. Most thought I was mad. Some were intrigued and nearly all said I would not do it. Well I took the jump, and I am so glad I did."