Brussels pushes for electric cars

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This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

The European Commission has approved a new strategy to promote clean and energy-efficient vehicles in the EU, primarily focusing on the role of electric cars rather than biofuel-powered vehicles.

In a communication published today (28 April), the Commission stresses that it does not favour any particular technology. However, the document sets out the limits of engines run on biofuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel.

"Liquid biofuels can be blended with conventional liquid fuels and burned in existing combustion engines up to a certain ratio. However, a higher blend requires modification of the fuelling system and the engine of the vehicle," the Commission says.

On the other hand, the paper underlines the potential of electric engines, quoting a study by forecasting company IHS which predicts that the global market share of electric vehicles in new car sales could hit 20% by 2030. Electric cars are currently a niche market.

"The ultra low-carbon electric power trains and hydrogen fuel cells are the most promising options," according to a Commission memo on the way forward for clean vehicles.

Indeed, the development of electric cars is seen by Brussels as complementing the increased deployment of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which also use electric motors but generate electricity on board the vehicle itself.

Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani acknowledged that many EU countries are deciding to opt for electric cars. "This is a positive solution," he said, remarking that electric cars were being pushed forward on a global scale, notably in the United States and Far-East Asia.

"However, this does not prevent the Commission from looking at other solutions," Tajani stressed, dismissing concerns that the lack of a clear industrial choice at EU level could tip the race towards green cars in favour of Europe's international competitors.

To support the massive deployment of battery-powered cars, the EU executive suggests encouraging the widespread installation of accessible charging points, as is the case now for petrol vehicles.

"The EU should take a leading role by working with member sates at national and regional levels on the build-up of charging and refuelling infrastructures," reads the document adopted by the Commission, which also remarks that "the European Investment Bank should explore how to provide funding to stimulate investment in infrastructure and services build-up for green vehicles".

The adoption of common standards across the EU is also crucial to make recharging possible across the continent.

The take-up of electric vehicles is expected to have a massive positive effect on the environment in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. However, in order to achieve these results, the Commission underlines that the electricity consumed by the new generation of smart cars must come from low-carbon energy sources.

Detailed legislation is also needed to regulate the usage and recycling of batteries, which could have a detrimental effect on the environment if not properly managed.

'Twin-track' strategy

The strategy for electric cars falls within a wider plan to increase the overall uptake of green vehicles across the EU. The financial side of the strategy plays a key role in effectively replacing traditional cars with cleaner vehicles.

By the end of the year, the EU executive intends to present guidelines on financial incentives for consumers to buy green vehicles. Member states are encouraged to support the deployment of such cars, provided that they do not violate EU rules on state aid.

Brussels also intends to review the Energy Taxation Directive in order to increase "the efficient use of conventional fuels and the gradual uptake of alternative low-carbon emitting fuels," the communication reveals.

The Commission accepts that the replacement of traditional vehicles will not happen overnight, and acknowledges that it is necessary to work on improving the energy efficiency of the models currently in use.

This "twin-track approach" will include a number of measures to address the negative environmental impact of traditional vehicles with measures ranging from regulation of two- and three-wheelers to a plan to reduce emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.   

"In 2010, the automotive industry enters into a defining phase for its future success. The new European strategy will provide a supportive framework based on a twin-track approach: improving the efficiency of conventional engines and making ultra low-carbon mobility a reality for European consumers," said EU Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani.

His views are matched by those of Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, who said: "Electrical cars will play an important part in reaching low-carbon mobility. By swiftly achieving common standards, all electrical cars will be able to be charged everywhere in the European Union. This will pave the way for a widespread use of e-cars in Europe and for the competitiveness of our industry in promising world markets."

"For the first time, the EU is talking about introducing CO2 standards for lorries, and targets for cars beyond 2020; these aspirations should be welcomed," said Jos Dings, director of NGO Transport & Environment (T&E).

"But talk is cheap, and the Commission has shown a tendency in the past to lose its nerve when it comes to making legislative proposals, most recently in October when it announced weakened CO2 targets for vans," he added.

"On electric cars, the Commission hasn't addressed two of the most critical issues, namely ensuring that the extra electricity needed will boost renewable sources and the need for smart meters in every vehicle to keep track of consumption and the carbon intensity of electricity," Dings deplored.

"These two issues will be critical to ensuring that electric cars actually reduce emissions," he concluded.

"This proposal does represent a step forward in the creation of a better regulatory and fiscal environment that will stimulate demand for low CO2 emitting cars," said Bernard Gilmont, director of the European Aluminium Association's (EAA) automotive and transport department.

"However, an integral part of this strategy should be the overall weight reduction of vehicles – one of the easiest and most cost-effective measures that can be implemented immediately," he added. "This has not yet been addressed comprehensively in the strategy and should be."

"Using aluminium to reduce weight helps reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions in automobiles," an EAA press release stated. "Aluminium is the ideal material as it allows a weight saving of up to 50% over competing materials in most applications, without compromising safety and strength," it said.

"We are rising to the challenge through cost-efficient and easy to apply aluminium solutions in cars," Gilmont concluded.

Better Place, an Israeli company that has become a market leader in providing network infrastructure for electric vehicles, says "European decision makers need to act quickly and speed up work on common standards for charging infrastructure for electric cars."

In an e-mail statement, the company said electric cars are already a reality, with 24 models planned to be on the road by 2012. "To give a concrete example, Better Place is 6 months away from testing their complete solution for charging infrastructure, and 15 months away from a commercial launch in Denmark and Israel. In practice, this means consumers will have the possibility to drive electric cars throughout Denmark, just like a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle." said Marianne Wier, of Better Place Denmark.

Greenpeace EU transport policy adviser Franziska Achterberg said: "The EU is finally joining the race to green our cars, but without ambitious legislation, Asian and American competitors will get to the chequered flag first. Existing EU legislation on car CO2 emissions needs to be tightened as soon as possible. If the EU wants to give the industry directions on where to go, it now needs to turn this ambition into law. We will have to see if the Commission can do this or if its grand aspirations will be watered down at the finishing line."

"We  support  the Commission in its goal to facilitate a rapid deployment of clean and energy efficient vehicles by embedding the innovative force of  the  European  automobile  industry  in  a smart policy framework and promoting  coordination among the 27 member states. This is the right approach given the fact that major competing economies, such as the United States, Japan and China, have already taken strategic action in this field," said Ivan Hodac, secretary-general of ACEA, which represents the European automotive industry.

The Communication, however, also highlights the complexity of the tasks ahead and the many stakeholders involved. Some actions can be started immediately, such as agreeing on a European plug to recharge a vehicle. Other measures need still further, careful consideration. For example, commercial transportation is very different from individual mobility, and policies must be shaped accordingly," Hodac said.

Going-Electric, the European Association for Battery Electric Vehicles, regretted that the Commission's communication did not focus all available financial resources on electric vehicles.

"Going-Electric is convinced that focusing all resources on electric technologies is essential to ensure the future competiveness of the European vehicle industry, against some Asian and American companies that are already doing so," it said.

It argued that the well-to-wheel environmental benefits of electric cars are far greater than those of alternative technologies like biofuel cars, parallel hybrids or hydrogen engines.

Transport accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions and 73% of all oil consumed in Europe and the global car fleet is expected to grow from 800 million to 1.6 billion vehicles by 2030, according to UN figures.

To reduce the EU's dependency on oil and gas and to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the European Commission has been pushing for greener vehicles for several years.

At a conference in Brussels last June, former Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik called for "greener cars and a smarter transport system," including the electrification of road and urban transport, and more research into hybrid technologies. 

Faced with the risk that the economic crisis will force automakers to cut investment in R&D, setting back the development of electric vehicles by several years, the European Union earmarked €5 billion in its economic recovery plan for the Green Car Initiative, designed to develop research into electric and hybrid vehicles (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'Electric Cars').

  • By end 2010: Commission to favour coordination of EU-wide incentive policies for market uptake of green cars.
  • By 2030: Electric vehicles expected to reach up to 30% of global market share of new car sales.
  • By 2030: Global car fleet predicted to double to 1.6 billion vehicles.

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