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Our friend's electric

Source: www.timesonline.co.uk

The future of transport is quiet. An electric car may look and drive like its petrol counterpart, but all you hear is a low humming sound. Unsuspecting pedestrians jump in fright as it sneaks up, but the motorist’s conscience is clear: this is not a gas-guzzler — it’s emissions-free.

The i-MiEV, Mitsubishi’s innovative electric vehicle, is one of the first such cars to reach Ireland. If the government has its way, the model will be joined by 199,999 others of different shapes and varieties by 2020.

Eamon Ryan, the Green party’s energy minister, has a vision of Ireland as a world leader in the roll-out of battery-powered cars. Plug-in motoring, he believes, is the most potent trend in transport since Henry Ford’s first Model-T rolled off an assembly line in Detroit. Ryan is determined that Ireland will be in on this development from the start.

“Why do we have to wait for other countries to develop this? We can do things first,” the minister said. “We can be leaders rather than followers. Why not develop this technology and build it in Ireland? Let’s have Irish wind powering our cars rather than Saudi Arabian oil.”

But are Irish motorists likely to be as enthusiastic as the Green minister? The running costs of electric cars are one-fifth of petrol or diesel models. They cost just €2 to €3 to charge overnight, and will run for about 160km at a time, more than enough to cover the average daily travel distance of 75km.

Ryan is convinced that if he can get the public to buy the cars, then the necessary infrastructure will follow. His vision is of electric-car drivers travelling from Dublin to Cork and stopping off to charge their vehicles at petrol stations, hotels and cafes en route. Before they set off, the drivers would download Irish-produced mobile phone applications showing the location of the nearest power source.

Ireland, he hopes, will be so far advanced in the development of the technology that other countries will visit us to learn. Best of all, there would be jobs galore for Irish industries. “We may not be making cars, we may not be making batteries, but we can develop expertise here and sell it elsewhere,” the minister said. “We can make software and systems around this new technology.”

Ryan’s enthusiasm is reflected in the ambitious targets he has set for the project. By next year the government wants 2,000 electric cars on Irish roads. By 2012, there should be 6,000, and by 2020 they should account for 10% of the national fleet.

Electric cars with cutting-edge battery technology won’t come cheap, but Ryan intends to set aside €60m to make them more affordable. Buyers of fully electric cars will get grants up to €5,000. Those who opt for plug-in hybrids, which use petrol or diesel engines to assist electrical motors, will get €2,500. Vehicle Registration Tax will be waived on both models, and manufacturers promise that electric cars will be priced close to their petrol or diesel equivalents.

The ESB, the state-owned power company, is to spend €20m rolling out 1,500 on-street and 2,000 home charging points. It will fit 30 “fast chargers” at 60km intervals on main inter-urban routes.

It sounds just like the sort of project that Ireland needs to drag it out of the economic doldrums, but not everyone shares Ryan’s vision.

AS the minister waxes lyrical, critics and would-be buyers are already identifying flaws. They wonder whether electric cars are good enough to attract buyers. They recall that the last time Ireland aspired to become a world leader in technology, the government spent €52m on electronic voting machines — which are now in storage. The concern is that history could repeat itself, and that Ryan is getting carried away with his electric dreams.

Richard Tol, a research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), is among the sceptics. “This is clearly a subsidy for select members of the upper middle class,” he said last week, dismissing the incentive scheme out of hand.

“Electric vehicles are fine for city driving, and the perfect choice for those who can afford a second car and want to polish up on their green image. But they are not yet ready for prime time. I wouldn’t buy a car like this, and I don’t see how anyone could have it as a first car,” he said.

Tol believes Ryan is taking too much of a risk by investing so early in an “infant” technology. He points out that other alternative fuel options, such as hydrogen, are also in development and warned it will be 15 years before the winner emerges.

“Given the dire state of the public purse, it would be better to let others pay for the demonstration of all-electric vehicles and roll them out in Ireland when, and if, the technology is ready,” said Tol, who believes it is too early to know if we are getting Betamax, an early version video cassette, or VHS, which won. “It’s a gamble and it’s not smart,” Tol concluded.

Peter Wells, co-ordinator at Cardiff University’s Centre for Automotive Industry Research, also believes the government’s vision of making the country a world leader in electric cars may not be achievable. For a start, the majority of its electricity supply is generated from fossil fuels, which negates the benefits of zero-emission electric cars.

Wells points out that other countries are also involved in developing the technology, and are capable of overtaking Ireland. “The potential economic spin-offs have been identified by other locations, but not all can win. The competition is extremely tough,” he said, highlighting Denmark, where wind power is used as a renewable source, and Israel, where solar technology is well advanced.

For other critics, the argument against electric cars is simpler still. They just don’t believe the available models are good enough yet. “Range anxiety” is defined as the fear of being stranded in an electric car because of insufficient battery performance or charge. According to Neil Briscoe, editor of eDrive.ie., it has been identified as a real obstacle to sales.

“Most of these cars will go about 160km and that doesn’t really get you far,” he said. “The ones I have driven would struggle to get you from Dublin to Athlone. As you power along on the motorway you are draining down the battery at a rapid rate.”

William Smith, an engineering lecturer in University College Dublin, believes that Ryan should have adopted a different approach and given more incentives to plug-in hybrids rather than all-electric models. He reckons Irish people would be more willing to try hybrids, as they have a conventionally powered safety net while still reducing emissions.

Using an all-electric car to collect the children from school or to pop to the shops takes a charge of about one to two hours. To get full battery power requires six to eight.

The ESB has just 1,500 city charging points, while the 30 fast-charge points can be found only on main routes, and it takes 25 minutes to supply an 80% recharge.

Ryan admits Ireland is taking a risk on electric cars, but argues it’s one worth taking, and Briscoe agrees. “If we are taking a risk, it’s minimal. The amount of money involved in the grand scheme of things is not that much,” he said.

“It may be a trite comparison but it’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the [€22 billion] being pumped into Anglo Irish Bank. We are not really doing anything dramatic. We are simply telling people who might like to buy an electric car that they have an incentive to do so because it’s emissions-free. All the ESB is doing is putting in charging points.”

John Campion, executive director of sustainability at the ESB, argues the incentives for electric cars are only a temporary measure to aid their introduction. He said many of the models involved are family saloons or commercial vehicles and would appeal to all motorists, not just the “middle-class city dweller” to which Tol referred.

“It’s an introductory offer to encourage people to go for a test drive. Once the volume of sales is up and the cost of production decreases, the grants will be phased out,” he said.

Campion insists that Ireland is perfectly suited to the introduction of electric cars. “Some 80% of journeys are less than 50km and these drivers will be able to plug in at night. For those who do longer distances there is the option of hybrid plug-ins which get a grant of €2,500,” he said. “By 2020, 40% of electricity in the country will come from renewable sources. By 2035 electricity generation will be carbon-neutral and electric cars will then be totally emission-free.”

Campion is unperturbed by warnings that other countries are more likely to benefit economically from a surge in popularity of electric cars. “A lot of countries and cities are vying to be first in this. We’ve already managed to get into a leading position and we don’t even have a car manufacturing industry,” he said.

FOR now, the one thing electric cars can be guaranteed to generate is attention. Plugging in the i-MiEV at a kerbside charging point in Dublin last week attracted a crowd of interested onlookers. Brenda Daly, an SUV owner from Crumlin, thought the car was “not too bad” and then on learning it costs €2 to recharge upgraded her reaction to “pretty all right”.

For Eric Bassett, managing director of Renault Ireland, the idea is to convince motorists that electric cars are not the leap into the unknown they may seem. “The message we need to get across is that these are just normal cars but with zero emissions. When people get a chance to drive and experience them, they will hopefully be more likely to buy one,” he said.

Next year the choice of models will improve as well. In addition to Mitsubishi and Renault, Nissan, for example, will be marketing the Leaf, while Opel is bringing a plug-in hybrid to the market as well.

As battery technology improves, Briscoe is hopeful motorists will be able to purchase sportier models that will be as fun to drive as racy petrol or diesel equivalents. But before that happens, he said, courage on the part of buyers is required.

“I think the people who will buy electric cars in the next year or so will have to be very brave. We are talking about early adopters, the types that had laptops before anyone else,” he said. “For the moment they will need to plan their journeys very carefully, but it’s early days and the technology will improve and become more affordable.”

As a motoring correspondent, Briscoe is well placed to give a verdict on the electric car. “For most people wondering could I replace my conventional car with an electric one, the answer at the moment is most likely a ‘no’. But in another few years the technology will have caught up with our expectations,” he said.

“When that happens, things are going to change utterly. No more worrying about polluting or about rising oil prices. No more noisy city streets or choking fumes. This, is fabulous, heady, game-changing stuff and it’s fantastically cool.” Ryan is not the only electric evangelical.

 






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