Denmark to be electric cars guinea pig
By Honor Mahony
Studies have shown than when prices at the petrol pump rise, there is a corresponding leap in internet searches for the electric car.
But that is about the extent of it as far as the consumer is concerned. When petrol prices return to levels that do not hurt the wallet so much, interest wanes.
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The electric car might be touted – at least at face value - as the silver environmental bullet but its hefty price tag and consumers' natural conservatism when it comes to embracing a wholly new technology has kept it mostly in the showroom.
But an ambitious new programme in Denmark, run by Silicon Valley start-up Better Place, is hoping to tip the scales towards the battery-run car.
Like a mobile phone company
Its solution is to tackle all the worries that people have about electric cars – battery expense, range anxiety and lack of infrastructure – in one fell swoop.
"The best comparison would be if you compared us to a mobile phone company. What we're doing is building an infrastructure," communications director Susanne Tolstrup tells EUobserver.
The company is busy building up to 900 charging spots in public places across Denmark in anticipation of the commercial launch of the electric car by its partner Renault in September. Customers who sign up to the scheme will also get their own private charge pad at their house.
And for those doing longer commutes, robot-operated battery switch stations – the operation should take five minutes – are being placed along the country's motorways.
The first electric cars are supposed to be on Danish roads in November with "several hundred pre-orders" already on the books.
Under the business model, Danes would buy the electric car and sign up to one of four deals, paying a maximum of €399 a month for an all-you-can-drive package. Better Place is gambling that prices at the petrol pump will continue to rise.
It is no accident that the company has gone to Denmark for its first European foray. Electric cars, not subject to the country's extremely high registration tax, will work out at almost half the price of conventional cars. The company reckons that the costs overall will represent a 20 percent saving for the Danish consumer.
This "birthday present" aside, success will ultimately come down to whether Danes decide to make this "paradigm shift", says Tolstrup.
Talking it up
But going by talk alone, the electric car's star seems to be rise.
Estonia earlier this year announced it wants to have 1000 electric cars on its streets by the end of next year, Germany wants one million of them by the end of the decade. Major cities such as London and Paris are busy setting up electric car schemes. Formula One – for all its reverence for the speed and strength of the combustion engine – has promised to hold a electric car championship in 2013.
The EU is also contributing to the buzz. It recently granted €41.8 million for research in the area and a Spring discussion paper on transport suggests that conventional cars should no longer be in cities by 2050.
But electric cars are still far from being the environmental godsend that many are hoping for.
"The problem", says Dudley Curtis from green group Transport and Environment, "is how do make the electricity efficient."
If electricity is not decarbonised – Poland for example gets most of its needs from coal – then electric cars could be more polluting that normal petrol cars, which are continually getting more efficient. "You need a really solid renewable energy structure," says Dudley.
There are plenty of other worries too.
"You need some sort of standardised socket, so you can plug your car across borders, then you would need to have certain possibility to buy insurance for these cars and garage services in case of accidents," says Christian Egenhofer from the Centre for European Policy Studies.
While he reckons that electric vehicles are here to stay – biofuels have fallen out of favour due to their potential gobbling up of farmland and developers have yet to find a way to cleanly produce hydrogen fuel cells - Egenhofer believes that even by 2020 there will still only be large pilot scale projects underway as industry and policy-makers try and iron out initial problems.
Another factor is the EU's mixed message on the issue. While it has forced car manufacturers to make more fuel efficient cars, a super-credit system allows them to sell gas-guzzlers for every very low emission, or electric, vehicle they sell. In other words, the fuel standards do not hurt enough to make the electric car more attractive to manufacturers.
And then there is money. An all out push for electric cars will require billions of euros of public money. "Public intervention will be needed to build grids," says Curtis "but in the past, these interventions have gone wrong."
But he concludes that with oil becoming "really nasty to extract so at some stage we are going to come to a point where we need a fundamental technology shift and it looks like electric will be the thing."
Better Place's Tolstrup agrees. "It is going to happen, the question is how quickly it is going to happen."
Until that point, Denmark's electric car motorists will be pioneers, but only within their country's borders. They will have to hire a conventional combustion-engine car if they want to drive abroad.