Are Europe’s Electric Car Dreams Crumbling?

Battery power has long been hailed as the future of green transport, but new EU sales figures show a decline in electric car purchases. What could be putting the brakes on Europe’s ‘electric dreams’?

Last year, the EU’s environment committee recommended that all new cars be ‘ultra low emission’ by 2040. National governments are jostling to top the target – Ireland pledged to have all cars electric by 2030, and the UK wants 60 per cent of its fleet run on batteries by the same date.

Whether in Europe’s modern urban centres, or rural areas, the challenge ahead of electric everywhere is infrastructure.

Energy production is subject to a significant divide. For instance, Norway gains 98 per cent of its power from renewables, whereas Poland burns coal for 78 per cent of its power. The disparities are partly due to natural resources – Scandinavia benefits from mountains, where Poland has an abundance of coal. But however we power our countries, there is an growing challenge over the switch from gas in the tank to power from the grid. 

The lifecycle of car batteries is another significant worry, as the environmental nightmare of dead battery dumps is unsolved. But the health benefits of pollution-free, quiet cities, with zero carbon emissions, are the major pull towards an all-electric vehicle future.

Some nations in Europe, such as Norway, are already ahead of the electric car transition. With its mountainous roads, deep road tunnels, and winter months locked in sub-zero temperatures, Norwegians seem like unlikely candidates to embrace electric cars.

Still, Norway boasts the world’s highest level of electric car ownership per person. Strong support from the government gives electric drivers free city parking, access to bus lanes and a quarter knocked off their car tax.

This year, 45 per cent of new car registrations in Norway were electric, up 72 per cent on the start of 2018. Petter Haugneland, deputy chair of the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association, said: “We continue to show the world that an emissions-free car fleet is possible as long as consumers are on the team. The figures promise well for [parliament’s] target of 100 per cent fossil-free new car sales by 2025. But going from 45 to 100 per cent market share in six years does not happen by itself.”

Another nation quick to snap up electric cars was the Netherlands, but since 2016, purchase levels have steeply declined. The Dutch government provided big incentives for motorists to go electric, such as exemptions from car taxes, but these were removed in 2016. But recently, demand at the high-end of the market for Tesla models has tripled registrations from 2017 to 2018.

The UK has recently made moves to keep its position on the starting grid of the electric transition. British minister for transport, Chris Grayling, announced that all newly built homes will have an electric car charger: “With record levels of ultra-low emission vehicles on our roads, it is clear there is an appetite for cleaner, greener transport”, he said. 

Home charging provides the most convenient and low-cost option for consumers – you can simply plug your car in to charge overnight as you would a mobile phone.”

The idea is currently at a consultation stage, and it would cover all houses built with a car parking space.

Despite Britain’s good intentions, some industry leaders remain doubtful over its ability to adapt. Professor Ralf Speth, head of Jaguar-Land Rover, raised the issue this month, when he said: “The current charging infrastructure is not really sufficient to cover the country, nor hotspots of the cities.

We need more, and faster, charging opportunities, which includes rapid charging and convenience points.”

Though these nations are setting the pace in electric motoring, one major market is a little langsam in adopting electric. Though Germany’s car manufacturing giants are the driving force behind electric innovation, German buyers are less willing to depart from fossil fuels. Hybrids and plug-in vehicles made up only five per cent of new registrations in 2018.

Germany’s power-hungry economy is also heavily dependent on coal and gas, providing less of an eco-friendly incentive for consumers to invest in an electric car.

Similarly, Italy’s passion for motor technology has failed to translate into electric car purchases. Notoriously high fuel prices could have motivated Italians to switch, but domestic power prices in Italy are also the highest in Europe, and many homes are subject to energy caps, which would be wiped out daily by charging a car.

A proactive campaign in France against urban pollution has forced many city dwellers to go electric, but whilst this has been a salve for some, high taxes on diesels have been a headache for the rural French. Resentment over the carrot-and-stick approach has been a contributor to President Macron’s gilets-jaune woes.

A bonus scheme for businesses to switch to electric vans helped France become the world leader for electric commercial vehicles. Vans such as Renault’s electric Kangoo, and the popular city car Renault Zoe, have put the va-va-voom into France’s drive to electric.

With a national grid basking in the glow of nuclear power, France is well placed to adapt to energy demands presented by home charging spikes.

The promise of an electric motoring future could put Europe at the forefront of the global energy revolution – but only with high levels of public and private investment, improved technology, and the desire from consumers to part with extra cash now to save money in the long-run.