Full electro-mobility will be the next giant leap for Europe

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An electric car charging on the street in Brussels. [Andrew Nash/Flickr]

We are on the cusp of the age of electro-mobility. Now we need concerted action from policymakers to ensure it really does become a reality, writes Nicolas Erb.

Nicolas Erb is EU affairs director at ALSTOM and chair of the European Platform for Electro-mobility.

Strides in what is sometimes called “the ascent of man” have often been linked to revolutions in mobility. Sometimes these transport revolutions have even come to define the “age” in which they predominate: the age of sail, the age of rail, the automobile age, the jet age etc. Today we are on the cusp of another transport revolution – a quiet revolution – but one which could change European society just as much as those which came before it.

E-mobility is growing  

Rail transport, for one, bears testimony to the benefits of electrification. All metros and tramways are electric and provide high-capacity, zero-emission public transport systems in many European cities. Likewise, about 80% of Europe’s mainline rail traffic is powered by electricity. Several EU member states are now pushing towards a 100% electrified rail network, with the potential to reduce the CO2 emissions of rail to zero if they achieve it.

And road transport is catching up. Last year, the number of electric vehicles (EVs) purring up and down the world’s roads surpassed two million. This may not seem a lot when set against the total number of cars on the road (which is probably in excess of a billion) but it does represent remarkable and sustained growth. EV sales climbed by nearly 40% in the US last year, while China has become the largest single market in the world for EVs and plug-in hybrids, with sales only expected to grow as government-backed investment presses on. Crucially, EV’s are gaining market share everywhere, and in some advanced markets, like Norway, they are pushing towards a quarter of all new cars sold. This is remarkable, given that the total number of global EVs was measured in the hundreds only a few years ago. On top of this, more and more electric buses are coming to market, benefitting both from improvements in battery technology and the development of charging systems. The market for hybrid e-trucks is also set to grow, with various technologies being tested, in Sweden in particular. And certain analysts are now expecting nearly 10% annual growth in the e-bike market.

The three drivers of e-mobility

A combination of factors is driving the e-mobility revolution and it is now essential that the European Commission works closely with member states to bring forward a genuine European “tipping point” to as soon as possible. The first is the falling cost and increasing sophistication of e-mobility generally, as illustrated by the increasing diversity of electric cars and buses, as well as the testing of electrified highways in several parts of Europe (which could provide the power an EV needs during a long, inter-city journey). Improvements in the cost of battery packs, for example, mean that – at an average approaching $200 per kilowatt-hour – they are making EVs competitive with conventional vehicles. The same efficiencies have also made it possible to produce electric vehicles that are able to travel as far as 300 km and beyond on a single charge.

When you extrapolate out from these trends, you find that e-mobility will help European consumers radically cut the nearly €1 billion they spend on imported oil every day. And cutting Europe’s dependency on high-polluting oil connects to the second major driver of e-mobility: the strategic commitments to combat climate change, which are now enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

Successfully decarbonising transport is going to be central to achieving the EU’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Transport – across all modes – now accounts for around a third of EU greenhouse gas emissions. Rolling out electrification across the whole sector, displacing oil and deploying clean sources of power will help us cut emissions and will seriously reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution in the process, which are currently estimated to be over 400,000 per year according to the European Environmental Agency. This is the third driver of e-mobility.

All that is needed now is for the infrastructure decisions that have already been agreed in principle to be rolled out faster. This is why it is crucial that the Commission press harder for member states to show more urgency in this regard.

How we can accelerate the transition

A joined-up and accessible network of public charging stations is a sine qua non if Europeans are to benefit from the huge strides in e-mobility. These should be rolled out as soon as possible to ensure that low-carbon electricity becomes the default fuel for transport between as well as within cities. As a priority, all member states need to deploy charging infrastructure for cars around existing railway and public transport stations – thereby enabling zero-emission “multimodality”. There is no need to delay on this. In parallel, public transport should be further electrified, especially through the deployment of electric buses.

So the next key step is for all member states to finally submit their detailed plans for deploying an electric charging network to the European Commission and for these to be published as soon as possible. Only when consumers and investors can be 100% confident that the EU is serious about the next transport revolution will we be able to make the age of electromobility our own.