European electromobility is beginning to take off. The targets set by the Paris climate deal depend on it. The EU’s Nordic neighbour, Norway, is showing the rest of Europe the way forward. EURACTIV’s partner The Guardian reports.

Oslo, Norway’s capital, like most of the Scandinavian country’s cities and towns, boasts bus-lane access for electric vehicles (EVs), recharging stations aplenty, privileged parking, and toll-free travel for electric cars.

The initiative began in the 1990s as an effort to cut pollution, congestion, and noise in urban centres; now its primary rationale is combating climate change. Today, Norway has the highest per capita number of all-electric (battery only) cars in the world: more than 100,000 in a country of 5.2 million people.

Last year, EVs constituted nearly 40% of the nation’s newly registered passenger cars.

And the Norwegian experiment shows every sign of accelerating. Earlier this year, Norway opened the world’s largest fast-charging station, which can charge up to 28 vehicles in about half an hour.

The Nordic country, joined by Europe’s number two in electromobility, the Netherlands, intends to phase out all fossil fuel-powered automobiles by 2025. Elon Musk, CEO of US electric car company Tesla Motors, responded to Norway’s goal by tweeting: “What an amazingly awesome country. You guys rock!”

Norway is the clear electric vehicle pacesetter in Europe, which now has about 500,000 electric vehicles. China leads the world in EV usage, with about 600,000 all-electric vehicles on its roads and an ambitious plan to deploy 5 million EVs by 2020.

Surge in electric cars could strain energy grid, warns EU agency

The large scale roll-out of electric cars on EU roads will help fight climate change but more electricity will have to be generated to power the vehicles which, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has warned, could have its own impact on global warming.

The US ranks third globally, with fewer than 500,000 EVs. But electric vehicle momentum is picking up across the Atlantic, as evidenced by the 400,000 people who have paid $1,000 to be on the waiting list for Tesla’s $35,000 Model 3 car.

The trailblazing achievements of the Norwegians and the Dutch are just one reason that many experts see 2017 as a crucial breakout year for electric mobility in Europe and beyond.

Experts acknowledge that in the past the numbers have never quite lived up to the hype around EVs or other alternative transportation technologies.

Indeed, in 2016, only 2 million electric and hybrid passenger cars were on the road worldwide – about 0.2% of the global fleet; in Europe, significantly less than 1% of new car registrations are battery-electric vehicles (as opposed to hybrid cars).

Big questions still loom, such as whether there will be sufficient renewable energy supplies to power vast new fleets of EVs. If electric vehicles are charged with fossil fuel-generated electricity, the result is more, not fewer, greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, because of rapid technological advances and strong government support for EVs in Europe and China, experts maintain that a new era in electromobility is dawning – and that this time there’s more to the prediction than industry optimism.

“We’re convinced that Europe and other continents, too, are now turning the corner on e-mobility,” said Lars Mönch of Germany’s Federal Environment Agency. “It’s the aim of all big cities worldwide to ambitiously tackle the climate and urban congestion issues that they all face.”

Referring to the provisions of the Paris agreement on climate change, in which nations pledged emissions cuts aimed at holding temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, Mönch added, “There are goals now for the transportation sector that can only be met with alternative forms of mobility.”

Norway illustrates that with incentives that eliminate the price advantage of conventional gas-burning vehicles, many people will go for the electric option. And since 98 % of Norway’s electricity comes from hydropower, the country’s burgeoning EV fleet leaves almost no carbon footprint.

Many European experts and industry representatives see the Norwegian model, minus the whopping subsidies, as a sign of where European electromobility is heading.

Magdalena Jozwicka of the European Environment Agency, a Copenhagen-based EU body, says the EU looks to non-EU member Norway for inspiration. Even though it’s highly subsidised, e-mobility in Norway has caught fire on account of its own virtues, she said, noting its contribution to air quality and the many perks that e-cars enjoy.

Thanks to its lucrative offshore oil and natural gas business, Norway can afford to promote e-mobility with generous incentives, including the considerable bonus of exemption from a 25% sales tax.

Norway’s access to abundant and cheap zero-emission hydroelectric power means it can even offer e-car owners free power charging at public charging stations.

Elsewhere in Europe, the main driver for EV growth isn’t subsidies but legislation, explains Wolfgang Bernhart of the international consulting firm Roland Berger, referring to the EU’s mandatory emissions-reduction targets for new cars.

By 2021, the average emissions of all new cars sold must be 40% less than what the average car on the road emits today – an extremely ambitious goal that can only be met by the rapid, large-scale adoption of electric vehicles.

“Every city in the EU is working toward this,” he says, noting that fine particulate pollution is also an issue in European metropolises. “A certain share of electric mobility of one type or another is really the only solution.”

In Europe, transportation is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. And while Europe’s industrial emissions have fallen by 38% since 1990, those in the transportation sector – including aviation – have increased by 9%.

The 2015 Paris climate accord and follow-up agreements stipulate that every signatory country propose national goals for climate protection, including – explicitly for the first time – for the transportation sector.

Moreover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation will “increase by 120% from 2000 to 2050 as a result of a projected three-fold increase” in the number of cars worldwide.

Some industry and advocacy groups have set a global deployment target of 100 million electric cars and 400 million electric motorcycles and scooters by 2030.

The upbeat assessments about e-mobility’s future are grounded in recent developments, including rapid advances in EV technology and China’s new-found commitment to decarbonisation.

Moreover, 2016 saw a surge in EV sales globally, 30% more than in 2015, and an expansion of charging infrastructure, both trends that will carry into 2017 and probably beyond.

Falling prices for EVs and recent technological developments have changed the game. For one, the cost of lithium-ion batteries, which account for about 40% of an EV or hybrid vehicle’s cost, has fallen by two-thirds since 2010 — much faster than experts had anticipated and with further steep reductions expected in the near future.

Six years ago, the average EV battery sold for more than $1,000 per kilowatt-hour; now it goes for less than $350. It could drop to as low as $125 in the near future, industry experts say.

China’s sudden and muscular emergence in the world of electromobility has internationalised momentum for electric vehicles.

What’s more, as battery technology develops — in particular the improving “energy density” of lithium-ion batteries, enabling them to store more power with less weight — the range of EVs is rising dramatically from the under 100-miles-per-charge of the first generation of e-cars.

A second generation of EVs is in production now and they are considerably lighter, longer-range automobiles than those launched five years ago. With the shock of Tesla’s unexpected advances, European car manufacturers have invested heavily in the forthcoming EVs, convinced that they either do so or lose out in the long run.

“We’re now flipping the switch,” said Daimler’s CEO Dieter Zetsche last year. “We’re ready for the launch of an electric product offensive that will cover all vehicle segments, from the compact to the luxury class.” European car makers have also lobbied forcefully for governments to provide bigger rebates and tax incentives in different forms to stimulate the domestic markets.

However, even a range exceeding 200 miles doesn’t alleviate the necessity for periodically recharging. The frequency of – and distance between– charging facilities has long been, and remains, one of the key sticking points that make potential buyers hesitate.

Charging infrastructure in Europe has grown since 2013 at a rate of 30% to 60% a year. The continent now has more than 100,000 charging spots, all but a few thousand of them “slow chargers”, which take as long as eight hours to juice up a battery.

Significantly reducing charging times is essential to the widespread adoption of EVs, and Europe has recently added 1,300 DC “fast chargers” to the network, namely stations that repower EVs in little more time that it takes to fill up with gas. But, unless you’re in Scandinavia, it’s still difficult to travel long distances in Europe with an all-electric plug-in vehicle.

The EU appears newly determined to get behind the push for more charging points by stipulating that as of 2019, every newly built or refurbished house from Cyprus to Lapland will have to have an EV charging station.

By 2023, 10% of all buildings’ parking spaces must have EV chargers. Europe’s automakers now recognise their own interest in finally outfitting the continent with the chargers that their electric fleets require.

But as the EEA’s Jozwicka notes, EVs “are only as clean as their source of power. The e-mobility revolution has to go hand-in-hand with a transition to clean energy or it doesn’t make any sense.”