Saturday 24 March 2018

Can we make our electric dreams a reality?

As the world begins transitioning to a low-carbon future, our Environment Editor asks if we are prepared for and capable of switching from dirty diesel and petrol engines to clean, green transport modes

Slow start: A target set in 2008 for 230,000 electric cars in Ireland by 2020 has since been downgraded to 20,000
Slow start: A target set in 2008 for 230,000 electric cars in Ireland by 2020 has since been downgraded to 20,000
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

The world is changing. Average global temperature records are being broken all the time as climate change takes hold. There is no longer a debate about the cause of global warming - but time is running out to tackle it.

Key to moving to a low-carbon economy will be decarbonising our transport fleet. The UK has plans to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040, following similar moves by France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, India and China over various timelines.

Here, the Climate Council, which advises Government on how best to tackle emissions, says Ireland must follow suit. While the Government says all cars should be zero-emissions, or zero-emissions capable, by 2030, progress is painfully slow.

With fewer than 3,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on our roads, why aren't people making the switch, and what's needed to drive the change?

"There's a reasonable amount of head-scratching as to why it hasn't happened," the AA's director of consumer affairs Conor Faughnan says. "I think a number of factors are at play. The electric option is still expensive. People also have a degree of concern around resale values.

"But there's also a mindset that needs to change. Even if you never drive to Cork, people won't buy a car that can't get you there. Families should instead think about having a local car and long-range car. Having an EV as a local car becomes a more viable option.

"I think with electric, you'll have the hockey-stick adoption curve. For ages, it will look like it's going nowhere, then it will rocket. The challenge for Ireland is how do you get it started."

Back in 2008, the Government set a target that by 2020, some 10pc of our national fleet, or around 230,000 cars, would be electric. This target has since dropped to 20,000.

But incentives are in place. A grant of up to €5,000 is available to defray the cost of going green, coupled with a €5,000 relief on Vehicle Registration Tax, meaning that consumers can get up to €10,000 off the cost of a new motor. So far this year, some 525 motorists have availed of grants, up 26pc year on year.

But the issue of range anxiety exists, despite the ESB installing 1,200 chargers across the island, including 75 fast-chargers which can provide an 80pc charge in 30 minutes. The public charging network was used 140,000 times last year, and the company is committed to installing free home chargers until at least the end of this year.

While most agree that more charging points are needed, some owners also point to the problem of being ICE'd - meaning an internal combustion engine car has parked at a charging point, but the owner is nowhere to be seen. There's also concern about chargers not working.

Jan-Bart Spang, the owner of a Renault Zoe and member of the Irish EV Owners Association, says range anxiety doesn't present an issue for most drivers.

No new charging points

"There is a perceived lack of available charging points, and perceived disadvantages about having to stop and charge. What people don't realise is they have a charging point at home. I live in Mallow in Cork, and left home this morning for Portlaoise with 30pc battery. I stopped, and will have to stop a second time, so it will probably add 30 minutes to my journey, but I probably would have stopped anyway.

"But there's no new charging points being installed. We need competition, because when Joe Soap on the road doesn't see anything coming from Government, it's an impediment."

While moving to EV won't solve our congestion problem, there's a low-carbon future for public transport, too. The Dart is electric, and Irish Rail is planning a switch to electric and hybrid over time. The National Transport Authority is currently examining options for the bus fleet, and will decide on the best solution later this year.

"The issue is the type of technology," deputy chief executive Hugh Creegan says.

"We don't want to lock into the wrong technology, because each bus has a 12-year lifespan. The cost of an electric bus is almost double (that of diesel). Investment will also be needed in the garages, and there's maintenance costs. Unlike buying a private car, there's a lot more to be taken into account."

By 2023, half the urban bus fleet will be converted to low-emission with a full change-over by 2030. Dublin Bus says work needs to begin now.

"Dublin Bus believes that the electrification of the entire fleet is possible," a spokesperson said. "While technology and infrastructure is not yet fully developed, trialling of these systems and electric vehicles needs to start now to ensure that we are well-placed to move when funding becomes available for it."

There are issues with generating the power needed to fuel the switch to EVs, but national grid operator EirGrid says at least 20,000 could be accommodated today without major changes. ESB says that to connect 275,000 motors, the grid will have to be bolstered at a cost of some €350m.

But key to the change-over will be incentives. The options include extending the grants available, allowing motorists to use bus lanes and travel toll-free, and free on-street car parking. In addition, there are questions about whether employees who avail of free charging at stations installed by their employer will be subject to benefit-in-kind.

A Low-Emission Vehicle Task Force is due to report by year-end, setting out the policies needed. Whether they're enough to drive the transition to green is another matter.

Eddie Cunningham gets a taste of an electrified future with the BMW 530e

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