Two years ago, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies announced a whopping 35% reimbursement on production costs over three years as an incentive for local electric car manufacturers.
So far, only Ethiopia and South Africa have attempted to launch electric cars on the African continent which some have hailed as an environmental victory for both countries. Eskom has already taken delivery of electric cars and installed charging stations at its Head Office and research facility to test the infrastructure demands these cars would place upon the grid. However, against the backdrop of recent power outages, we have to beg the question: does the electric car still have a future in South Africa?
“Sadly, the future is not bright for electric cars in South Africa,” says Jeff Osborne, head of Gumtree Automotive. “At least not for the time being.”
A battery-reliant electric car can use more power than all your televisions, computers, air conditioning and swimming pool pumps in the home combined. “You may save on petrol, but considering the increase in electricity prices, there really is no cost-benefit as of yet.”
The additional demand placed on the electricity grid is another concern – energy companies in the United States, that sees an average of 50,000 electric cars sold per annum, have already expressed their concern about the additional pressure these vehicles are placing on the system. “Plugging an electric vehicle into your home is the equivalent of adding three houses to the grid. When owners install dedicated electric charging stations to charge more quickly, it can be a significant burden. A modest home draws about 3000 watts of energy at most. Some of these vehicles can draw 16,800 watts off a fast charger.”
Incentives for consumers
Other countries have incentivised users to charge their cars overnight with off-peak rates, when demand is low. However, most of us want our cars to be ready at any moment. “These cars aren’t typically widely dispersed – you will find clusters of car owners in affluent neighbourhoods. If all of them decide to power up before work or on a Friday in preparation for the weekend, you could run into real problems.”
But the challenges are more far-reaching than our erratic power supply, Osborne explains, including the fact that owning an electric car can be impractical for the average South Africa.
“The average electric car is quite expensive to purchase and to run (with purchase prices of between R200 000 to R250 000 per vehicle), and time-consuming to charge. If you are using a normal household plug, it can take eight to 12 hours to fully charge a flat battery, and the range of a charged battery is limited to about 150km to 200km at best.
“If you are commuting from Pretoria to Johannesburg for an appointment, and returning home in Pretoria in the evening, you will have used the bulk of your battery’s capacity and need to recharge. Hopefully there will a quick recharge station nearby – and even if there is, a quick recharge takes up to half an hour. You will have to plan every trip very carefully.”
Batteries also need to be replaced every four to five years, which can be extremely costly. “In Europe, few people tend to hang onto their cars for more than a few years, but South Africa has a healthy second hand car market, and it’s not uncommon to keep your vehicle for ten years. This means that owning an electric car can be extremely pricey,” says Osborne. “Not to mention the fact that these vehicles are not mass produced in South Africa, but imported on order. Reselling such a niche product may prove impossible.”
Financial and environmental impact
In other countries where the uptake of electric cars were more favourable, governments incentivized buyers by covering the bulk of the cost of custom home charge point installation and granting tax write-offs. “South Africa has made no mention of doing this locally, although there has been a push by the Department of Environmental Affairs for public charging stations that will be powered by solar panels. Of course, quick charging draws huge currents, which photo-voltaic panels may not be able to provide,” says Osborne. “It will take a huge capex investment from filling stations to introduce charging stations and the profit motive is low at the moment.”
We should also not assume that electric cars are the most effective means of “greening” our roads. “The car itself does not generate any carbon emissions, but the primary source of electricity in South Africa is coal, which is a significant pollutant. You have to look at the environmental costs for the cars’ entire life cycle, including where the power is going to come from. If the grid is cleaner, the car would be cleaner.”
However, Osborne says it is still worth pursuing research into electric cars. “Energy diversity is a good thing. Lower carbon emissions are a great thing. Not relying solely on petrol is a great thing. Nissan Leaf in Japan has actually introduced a device that can power your home for two days when the electricity goes down, which could be very useful,” he states. “We still need to pursue research into this avenue, and Eskom has to consider the impact of a fleet of electric cars entering the market.”
Practically, if you hope to lower your carbon footprint, consider buying a hybrid vehicle. “Hybrid vehicles entered the South African market about five years ago, and we are seeing quality second-hand cars entering this market.”
Osborne says that the automotive industry has placed great emphasis on encouraging and developing the production of hybrid vehicles. “The threat of a carbon emission tax in 2016 plus greater consumer awareness has created a market for greener vehicles. In South Africa hybrid models have increased exponentially over the last few years (albeit from a low base) and analysts believe that electric cars will account for 15% of worldwide passenger vehicle sales by 2025,” he states. “The 2010 boom in sales has led to second hand hybrid cars enter the market. We’ve already seen various models listed on Gumtree for the first time. It could be a viable – and certainly more practical – alternative to an electric car.”