By Sue Landau
Now that we have cheap renewable energy, a full-blown industrial revolution is waiting in the wings, propelled by the need to slow climate change.
Just as the gasoline car banished horses and carriages from our roads, the electric car will drive its polluting predecessor into the history books. So say its proponents, citing exponential progress in battery technology in the past few years.
What is more, we are now able to produce enough competitive, clean electricity to power cars — something we did not have in the recent past.
“In contrast to a decade ago, the solutions exist,” former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said on French television in May while presenting the sequel to his groundbreaking film, An Inconvenient Truth, at the Cannes film festival.
Electric cars will not only reduce air pollution that plagues major urban areas. They can also slow climate change: Transport is the second biggest source of carbon emissions after energy, accounting for 23 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, of which three-quarters come from road traffic.
So addressing transport pollution is essential for implementing the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Yet with increasing urbanization and freight traffic, emissions continue to rise.
There is a long road ahead.
By the end of last year, the number of electric cars sold across the world had just topped two million. But to have enough impact on emissions, by 2030 there should be 150 million electric cars circulating, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2017 and 2016 Global EV Outlook reports.
Even that will not be enough, the agency says. Electric scooters and buses also need to be extended beyond China, the only country with significant numbers of such vehicles so far. Rail freight should be expanded and renewable energy sources ramped up.
Funky and fancy new models
This year the electric car industry is starting to make its presence felt, with record numbers of new models coming out from several car makers.
In contrast to earlier, fairly uninspiring cars, the new models are colorful, sleek and sophisticated. Some have batteries that offer as much mileage as gasoline models.
Battery prices are falling, making electric cars more affordable. And with electric motor racing in Formula E, they now have some of the glamour surrounding the car industry.
A whole industrial and service infrastructure is needed for a transition to electric motoring. But the transition is still underway, creating headaches for pioneering motorists.
For example, electric cars on a 7,000-kilometer European road trip earlier this year needed to recharge about 30 times. The availability of charging stations varies from country to country, and payment can be a problem because systems often are not compatible, even within countries.
Citywide car-sharing schemes like Autolib’ in Paris offer a local solution. The operator installs the infrastructure, and the cars recharge at parking slots between rentals. Cities starting to emulate Autolib’ include London, Copenhagen, Madrid, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Singapore, Indianapolis, Liège and Auckland.
A host of business ideas are emerging, like tow packs to supply extra power for those long holiday trips, technology for swifter and smarter charging, and apps to manage motorists’ charging needs.
On the rise after patchy take-up
Take-up of electric cars has been irregular but seems to be picking up. Sales in the United States dipped in 2014 and 2015, then surged 37 percent last year.
There is a similar pattern in Europe, where sales flattened in 2015, leading the European Car Manufacturer’s Association to forecast a market share of 8 percent for electric and hybrid vehicles in Europe by 2025. But then sales jumped 37.6 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
In China the rise has been sharper, with 2016 sales up 53 percent from 2015.
Still, electric vehicles represent just over 0.1 percent of the $2 trillion world car market.
There are big regional differences, too. Half of the electric cars in the United State are sold in California, while in Europe, Norway leads the way by a wide margin. Hybrids, or low-emission cars with a gasoline engine that charges the battery en route, are often the main growth driver as they do not need recharging points.
Oil demand is predicted to slacken in 2020s.
All this portends well for cutting carbon emissions.
“Electric vehicles and solar power are game-changers that the fossil fuel industry consistently underestimates,” said Luke Sussams, senior researcher at Carbon Tracker.
But that is not the end of the story. Good news for the environment is the harbinger of economic disruption, not just for coal and oil but for the car industry and its many component suppliers.
Whole countries live off oil, and the car industry is the linchpin of all advanced economies, underpinning employment and consumer spending. Which explains in part President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord and to ease environmental regulations.
For the car industry, a big question is whether electric cars will merely replace gasoline cars or whether personal mobility will take new forms not based on individual car ownership. This is where autonomous, driver-less cars come in.
Early steps in this field have been taken not by conventional car makers but by firms in the new economy – Apple, Google, Uber and electric car pioneer Tesla. But now the car majors are weighing in.
A threat to individual car ownership?
Driver-less cars could make a whole range of new mobility services economically viable and even displace individual car ownership, according to a study last year by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which said that electric power trains and autonomous driving systems are rapidly dropping in cost.
“It is possible that a new mobility system will emerge in the next few years that is superior to our existing system in almost every way,” the study said.
The Washington Post newspaper went so far as to say that although the research needs to be examined closely, if it is right, “then we would be on the verge of an energy and technology transformation to rival the sudden decline of the coal industry.”
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.