What’s driving our electric future?



Imagine pulling into your local shopping centre to buy your groceries and leaving the parking lot fully refuelled. Or perhaps you’d prefer to fill up your tank in your own garage overnight? Except you won’t be using fuel at all — rather clean, unharmful energy. This is the reality promised by an electric future. Less clear, is how we’re going to get there.

For the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA, the first step is simple: reduce the import tariffs on electric vehicles (EVs).

In an initiative spearheaded by Nissan, BMW and Volkswagen, a proposal will be handed to the government by the end of the year. It details how South Africa can sustainably move towards increasing the number of EVs on our roads.

As well as the call to reduce tariffs, which currently sit at 25% compared to 18% for petrol and diesel engines, the manufacturers intend to draft a way forward in terms of installing the infrastructure necessary to embrace this trend fully.

Firstly, the desire to move towards a greener future should be obvious — and shared by all. There are 12.5-million cars registered in the country today, all of them guzzling fuel that we’re increasingly struggling to afford. It’s enough to contribute to 10% of South Africa’s carbon emissions. In an age where the climate crisis is displacing and killing tens of thousands of people a year, that number is about 10% too high.

By contrast there are only about 1 000 EVs roaming the streets. As low as that figure is, it represents double the number we had two years ago. Further exponential increases, however, are limited by a few key factors.

Thanks largely to the high tariffs, manufacturers have failed to offer EV models that are affordable to the average consumer. Right now, buyers’ options have been limited to the Nissan Leaf, BMW’s i3 and i8, and, most recently, the Jaguar I-Pace.

The older model Leaf’s technology is outdated and largely unfeasible, and the other options price out all but the highest-end consumers. The new I-Pace, for instance, starts at R1.6-million, far higher than the petrol competitors in its class.

Even if you were to procure one of these luxurious EVs, charging it presents another challenge. There are about 200 public charging stations — almost half of which are situated in Gauteng. Jaguar and BMW are two of the companies that have invested heavily in ensuring the stations are located on as many key routes as possible but the feasibility of long-haul trips up or down either coast still remains in doubt.

Major infrastructure developments from the government and the private sector are necessary before we can see a tangible impact from electric. (For comparison, there are more than 5 000 petrol stations across South Africa.)

The former, at least in theory, has committed to that growth. When South Africa signed on the Paris Agreement of 2017, it committed to have 2.9-million electric cars on the road by 2050. In that time frame, R6.5-trillion will also be invested into the car manufacturing industry.

Whether we can afford to wait almost another 30 years to achieve that target is another debate entirely. We are increasingly falling behind the rest of the world in terms of production — and this trend is only growing sharper. In the foreseeable future, many manufacturers will retool their factories to produce EVs only, making combustion engines the ugly, expensive stepsisters of the market.

The numbers from overseas easily illustrate how pitiful our own position is. China, of course, is blazing ahead, with more than 2.2-million electric vehicles sold. The United States celebrated 1-million sales last year, while Europe is knocking on the door of 1.5-million.

When it comes to commanding market share, however, no one on the planet can hold a candle to Norway. By the end of 2018, effectively 50% of all vehicles on the road were electric or plug-in hybrids. Given that almost all of its electricity comes from hydropower, the Scandinavian country easily has the cleanest fleet per capita.

Such progress could be achieved only by offering a ruthless programme of incentives — for both seller and consumer. Tariffs and tax benefits aside, people are highly encouraged to drive electric in Oslo. You can use bus lanes, take advantage of special parking spots and drive free of toll and ferry charges.

As much as we may ogle such successful implementation, South Africa is not Norway. Our own sociopolitical landscape is vastly different to that of the Scandinavians and emulation is impossible. We’re also going to have to work out how to solve the chicken and egg problem we’re faced with: significant infrastructure will not be built without cars to use it but EVs won’t gain traction without the infrastructure.

Should tariffs get knocked down, are drivers going to be incentivised to go electric? If so, how do you avoid disenfranchising the majority of the population who won’t be able to afford a new car? Even in fully developed nations, petrol engines will dominate the used market for years to come — which is where millions of people secure their vehicles. Any monetary benefits begin to look awfully like tax breaks for the wealthy if most people simply can’t obtain them.

Another major question mark is just where the electricity needed to charge the desired influx of vehicles will come from. Eskom is already struggling to deal with providing the loads asked of it and is in deep financial turmoil. Ideally, solar and wind energy from private producers would offer a solution but that is still some way off.

The good news is that, supply willing, recharging is significantly cheaper than using petrol or diesel. At present, 1kWh costs between R3 and R3.50. In the new Leaf’s 62 kWh battery, for instance, that could set you back as little as R186. For context, that particular car will give you a range of about 364km. A full charge will take about 11.5 hours using a wallbox charger, but you can go from 20% to 80% capacity by plugging in for about 90 minutes at a quick charging station.

What will likely be the primary recharging method for most people is to simply plug it in overnight. Home charging can be activated by simply connecting the charging cable provided with the car to a standard 120 volt wall outlet. This is known as level 1 and is generally a slow process. Most manufacturers recommend level 2, a wallbox or charging station set up at home. There are multiple brands available and at present they can be ordered from Amazon for between $400 and $1 000.

Over an extended period, such costs are theoretically negligible compared to what would be saved on fuel — which is really the only incentive buyers should need. An electric car helps reduce all of our ecological footprints but, arguably, that’s not why the world is looking to undergo a EV revolution. Rather, people are buying these cars because they’re now cheaper to maintain and recharge, and offer driving experiences as good as anything witha petrol engine. Only when South Africa is able to offer a product that makes sense to the buyer, will people do what is right.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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