Have electric vehicles turned a corner?

2013-03-06 - If the Geneva Motor Show is anything to go by, 2013 may well be the year that electric vehicles (EVs) emerge as a viable alternative to gasoline-powered cars.

By ABB Communications

EVs have been slow to take to the road, largely because of high prices, the lack of charging infrastructure and ‘range anxiety’ on the part of drivers, who worry about running out of power on the road.

But indications are that EVs may now have turned a corner, thanks in large part to the emergence of a common global standard for fast chargers, which take only 15-30 minutes to charge a vehicle, as well as subsidies for the charging infrastructure and for the vehicles themselves.

Green cars and EVs are among the stars of the show at the world’s premier automobile event in Geneva, which runs from March 7-17. Leading manufacturers, such as BMW, Mercedes, Ford, Renault and Mitsubishi, will be exhibiting their latest EVs and the show is also hosting a week of conferences about the future of mobility.

Estonia's environment minister, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (center), opened the country's fast-charger network in February 2013.
One of the most ambitious initiatives to support EVs has been in Estonia, which in February 2013 became the first country to launch a nationwide network of fast chargers in major towns and on motorways. The fast-chargers, supplied by ABB, are a maximum of 60km apart, making it possible for electric vehicles to travel anywhere within the Baltic state without running out of power. ABB has also supplied fast chargers to Denmark, which is committed to becoming independent of fossil fuels by 2050, and Northern Ireland.

Hans Streng, the head of ABB’s electric vehicle infrastructure unit, is convinced that the market for EVs is poised to take off in certain countries. “Electric cars are still very expensive because of battery prices, but these are coming down, and in places where the price of gasoline is high, people will increasingly be tempted to switch to an electric vehicle.”

Another notable boost for EVs is coming from France, where the government is subsidizing a new compact electric car from Renault to the tune of 7,000 euros per vehicle. The “ZOE”, which is on display at the Geneva Motor Show, is now available in France at a similar price to its gasoline-powered equivalent.

Hans Streng reckons that the biggest potential markets for EVs are Japan and Europe because distances tend to be shorter and both are big importers of oil. “Japan has really triggered the shift to EVs because it is densely populated, technology oriented and it wants to reduce its dependence on oil,” he explained.

The emergence of EVs has taken longer than anticipated, but once the corner is turned, e-mobility will have significant implications for the way energy is managed. One challenge will be to ensure that having more electric and fewer gasoline vehicles on the roads does not simply shift the burden to electricity generation plants, many of which still depend on fossil fuels.

The gradual rollout of the charging infrastructure will also put increasing pressure on the grid in terms of the number of points from which electricity is extracted. Managing this challenge will require a shift to so-called smart grids, which are capable of balancing electricity consumption with supply and of integrating new technologies to enable energy storage on the periphery of the grid, where the charging stations are located.

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