EU ministers to ignite debate on electric cars

EU ministers will trigger a debate on an EU strategy for electric cars this week amid warnings by green groups that the electricity used to charge the vehicles could prove as polluting as the fuel engines they are supposed to replace.

Spain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, will table a document assessing challenges facing the electric vehicles industry at an informal meeting of EU competitiveness ministers tomorrow (9 February).

It aims to adopt a common EU action plan in May to give Europe's car-manufacturing industry a competitive edge in the race against the US, China and Japan.

The paper, obtained by EURACTIV, identifies the need to coordinate research and innovation activities and pool investment to spur the development of battery technology as key to bringing electric vehicles to market. In addition, public authorities will need to speed up construction of battery charging infrastructure and offer consumers financial incentives to buy electric cars to boost uptake, it says.

The Spanish Presidency stresses the importance of standardising vehicle and charging components to reduce manufacturing costs and ensure interoperability in the European market. It urges public authorities to team up with industry stakeholders to determine "the most appropriate process for such standardisation," both in Europe and internationally.

The paper primarily deals with industrial policy and European leadership rather than environmental aspects, which are the main marketing point for electric vehicles. It states, nevertheless, that the performance of plug-in hybrids and electric cars in terms of CO2 emissions needs to be "thoroughly analysed on a well-to-wheel basis".

The document acknowledges that "the provision of electricity may need to be adapted to drivers' charging patterns," which could cause new electricity demand peaks.

"The composition and use of the overall energy mix is central, and a reflection on promoting a closer link between renewable energies and battery-powered vehicle production could be useful in light of benefits offered by grid management and charging patterns," it says.

A Spanish government spokesperson said the Spanish Presidency hoped to present a vision of electric vehicles to the European Commission. Ministers would then discuss a common strategy for electric vehicles in Europe, including standardisation issues, he said.

While Madrid hopes to push the Commission to work on the issue, the EU executive wants to remain technology-neutral and promote green cars in general, sources said. At the moment, Spain is mainly trying to gauge the opinions of other member states rather than give substance to the common strategy, they added.

Green warnings

Meanwhile, a report published by four environmental groups today (8 February) warned that without smart electricity networks, increased numbers of electric cars will only spur demand for fossil fuels.

Without additional incentives for renewable energy production, the increase in electricity demand by electric vehicles will be met mainly by conventional plants that run on coal, gas or nuclear, it said.

"When charged on renewable electricity, electric vehicles have a greenhouse gas impact of nearly zero. Charging them for electricity produced with coal results in equal or higher emissions than for comparable conventional vehicles," the study argues.

One solution could be to plug electric cars into "smart" electricity grids that allow the integration of large amounts of renewable power, the report said.

On-board metering systems could be programmed to allow charging only when surplus renewable energy is available.

"Just as every car sold today has to have an odometer to show how far it has driven, every electric car needs a smart meter to show how much electricity has been used and better still, whether or not that electricity came from a renewable source," said Nusa Urbancic of Transport & Environment, one of the NGOs that commissioned the study. 

Once batteries have developed further, they could eventually store excess renewable energy and sell it back to the grid during periods of peak demand.

Moreover, the report warned that current EU legislation on CO2 emissions from cars has the perverse effect of promoting sales of gas-guzzling cars by allowing car manufacturers to offset their emissions with electric cars.

The legislation gives car manufacturers "super credits" for every electric car produced, allowing them to sell more high-emitting cars between 2012 and 2015 by ramping up their clean car production.

The report found that if the sales of electric vehicles were to rise to 10% of total car sales, it could increase the oil consumption of the European fleet, as well as CO2 it emits, by 20%.

The green groups therefore urged the EU to axe super credits from both current and future CO2 laws.

Background

The push to develop viable electric cars has been driven by the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to curb climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The transport sector has been offsetting emission cuts from other sources, as it has become the fastest-growing consumer of energy in the EU.

However, technical and logistical difficulties mean developing an electric vehicle for the mass market is far from straightforward. Critics say electric cars do not have a long enough 'range' (meaning they are not well-suited to long-distance driving) and a major overhaul of power supply infrastructure will be required to make electric cars convenient for consumers.

Nonetheless, political support for greener transport has been growing. In an economic recovery package released last year, the EU earmarked €5 billion for its Green Car Initiative (EURACTIV 27/11/08).

The EU plan includes support for research into electric and hybrid vehicles, but also allocates funding for hydrogen powered-vehicles and fuel cell technology. High-density batteries are seen as key to allowing electric cars to compete with contemporary petrol engines. 

Timeline

  • 9 Feb.: Informal meeting of competitiveness ministers to discuss electric vehicles.
  • 25-26 May: Competitiveness Council to adopt an EU action plan on electric vehicles.

Further Reading