Transport

Focus

EU states plug in to electric cars

27.08.08 @ 15:20

  1. By Helena Spongenberg

The number of electric cars on European roads is set receive a boost in coming years with EU member state governments and car makers promoting the move amid soaring oil prices, climate change concerns and tough EU environment regulations.

  • Hybrid and electric vehicles expected to represent 50 percent of Western European sales by 2015 (Photo: EUobserver)

The Spanish government aims to have one million electric cars by 2014 as part of a new and extensive energy plan to cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on expensive oil imports, the industry minister Miguel Sebastian announced to the Spanish parliament earlier this summer when presenting his government's new energy plan.

"The electric vehicle is the future and its development will entail an industrial revolution," he said.

The transportation changes, which come with a price-tag of €240 million, are part of a 31-point plan to cut national petroleum consumption by 10 percent – or 44 million barrels – by 2011.

The Spanish government is only the latest of several governments in Europe to set money aside to advance the use of electric cars, which produce no greenhouse gas emissions while being driven. Today, passenger cars accounts for 12 percent of all CO2 emissions in the European Union.

Across the border in Portugal, the government has linked up with car-makers to further the use of electric cars by investing in setting up electric charging stations across the country and in raising awareness of the vehicle's benefits.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently pledged €115 million in government money to support electric, hybrid and other more environmentally friendly car projects over a five-year period to help make Britain "the European capital for electric cars".

Denmark is planning to introduce a greater number of battery driven electric cars on the streets - charged on renewable energy from the country's many windmills - ahead of the UN Climate Summit that is to descend on Copenhagen in December 2009.

"Electric cars offer the possibility to get sustainable energy into the transport sector, which is why they have enormous potential – especially in Denmark, where a great deal [20 percent] of our electricity is generated by windmills," Danish climate and energy minister Connie Hedegaard said earlier this year.

Government incentives are important

Government incentives promoting zero-emission vehicles, along with a system that facilitates the use of the cars, will have a "significant impact on the future growth of electric vehicles," according to a June 2008 market research report on electric vehicles by Deutsche Bank.

Early versions of electric cars produced in the 1990s failed to win consumers' acceptance due to their high cost and lower performance than fossil-fuel-based vehicles.

However, advances in battery technology, "rising oil prices, increased societal concern about climate change, and a barrage of regulations focusing on fuel, energy efficiency and CO2 emissions have the potential to cause profound changes in the global auto industry over the next five to 10 years," predicts the report.

The European Commission – the EU's executive body – is legislating to force manufacturers to cut their average CO2 emissions by about one-quarter by 2012.

Car makers are now pushing ahead with the development of all-electric vehicles and expanding the range of existing petrol-electric hybrids with several new such cars in the pipeline for launch in the coming years.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are in the mix too, expected to be a long-term alternative to the fossil-fuelled internal combustion engine.

Industry analysts predict electric cars will be ready for the mass market some time around 2010-11 and that hybridised and electric vehicles will represent 50 percent of Western European sales by 2015. Five years later this figure could increase to 65 percent.

Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, head of the Centre of Automotive Research at the University of Applied Sciences in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, has even gone as far to forecast: "By 2025, all passenger cars sold in Europe will be electric or hybrid."

Electric car development is based on the use of high-storage lithium-ion batteries like the ones in laptops or mobile phones – only powerful enough to help propel a large car.

The advantages of electric cars for transportation is that the batteries can be charged with electricity produced from renewable energy and they hardly make any noise.

Recharging stations

New companies are studying ways of building the infrastructure to recharge and service electric cars, an issue that has so far been one of the biggest obstacles to the efficiency of electric cars.

Project Better Place – a Californian investment company – is working with car makers Renault and Nissan on the mass production of electric vehicles and the roll-out of an extensive recharging and battery-swap infrastructure in Israel, Denmark and Portugal. The company later aims to expand its business to several other countries.

Meanwhile, Toyota and EDF – the main electricity generation and distribution company in France – are working together on recharging spots around Europe.

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