Electric car target will be missed

Oct 22, 2012 | Energy and Carbon, Environment, News | 0 comments

Minister Rabbitte recently stated that Ireland intends that 10% of the car fleet, that is 230,000 vehicles, be electric by 2020 (International Electric Vehicles Summit in July this year). All informed commentators would agree that transport needs to be decarbonised if we are serious about reducing GHG emissions and to do this we first have to set targets. The question is whether this is a reasonable and achievable target.

The actual number of electric cars registered to date in Ireland is around 200 with just 121 registered so far this year. This is a meaningless small number and is effectively zero. This means that to get to 230,000 electric cars by 2020, we need to register around 28,750 cars per year from 2013 onwards. This is 40% of annual car registrations. This is a tough target.

We can examine this target under two headings, what industry leaders are thinking and what the current production capacity for electric cars is. Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn says that world wide, electric cars will make up 10% of car sales in 2020. But Carlos is not saying that 10% of the world fleet will be electric in 2020, but that sales will build up from where they are now to 10%. If Carlos is right, and we assume that we build up linearly from 0% sales in 2012 to 10% sales in 2020, then there will be 38,764 electric cars by 2020, or 1.7% of the fleet. To meet the 10% target Ireland has to divert radically from industry projections and be way ahead of the curve. This would seem unlikely.

It is also useful to look at this 10% target from the perspective of production capacity. The Nissan Leaf electric car produced in the UK is Europe’s top selling electric car. UK production capacity is 50,000 cars per year. This would mean that Ireland would require 58% of Nissan’s UK production capacity to meet the stated target. There are admittedly other makers of electric cars, but not that many. What this means is that to reach the 10% target set by Minister Rabbitte would require Ireland to commandeer a significant proportion of the European production capacity. Again, this would seem unlikely.

If we set aside reality, how do we aim to achieve the target? Perhaps this should include mandating that 50% of all public sector car purchases be electric cars, allowing electric cars to use bus lanes, demanding that 50% of all car parking spaces in Dublin be for electric cars. Somehow I can’t see this working.

The real problem is that electric cars are just not that appealing with their current limited range and the public are voting with their wallets. However, the hybrid car (electric battery with petrol engine back up) is far more convenient. It is not zero carbon (but then the electric car is not zero carbon either, it is charged from the grid). Hybrid cars outsell electric cars by 5 to 1 in Ireland. Perhaps we should just accept that electric cars are not what people want. A more pragmatic view would be to reset the target to be 10% of the car fleet to be a mix of electric and hybrid cars by 2020. This would allow greater consumer choice and still reduce GHG emissions. GHG emissions will not be reduced as much compared to a fleet comprised of 10% electric cars, but we are not going to get 10%, so this is a meaningless objection.

Of course there are other ways to decarbonise transport and these may be more cost effective. These ideas include electrifying more of the railways, phasing out diesel buses in favour of electric buses on busy routes, mandating the use of stop start technology in all new vehicles and building tram systems (e.g. Luas) in all other cities and large towns in Ireland.

In summary, we need a reasoned debate rather than picking targets out of the air that ignore industry predictions or production capacity.