Oslo, Norway’s capital, allows tax breaks for electric vehicles (EVs), bus-lane access to electric cars, has streets and backyards lined with charging stations, parking sops and toll-free passage for e-cars – incentives that have ensured that over a third of all new cars sold in this country are those that come with a plug.
For a country whose national wealth is primarily based on exports of fossil fuels, emerging a leader in electric vehicles does present a paradox of sorts. The Scandinavian nation, which currently has the highest per capita number of electric cars in the world, is charging ahead in its EV pursuit, having set an all-electric vehicle sales target for 2025. Countries like France and the UK hope to achieve the same by 2040. India has recently followed suit, having set a stiff all-electric vehicle sales target of 2030, but things will have to start from scratch. Countries such as Norway, alongside the Netherlands and Denmark, may have some lessons to offer.
“The reason Norway has such a high rate of EVs is heavy tax subsidy, but over time, we believe, it can be handled on a market basis. For that, some incentives on purchase is a good thing and should be considered by governments that have high ambitions. But the charging infrastructure is what should be given the highest priority, and of course connecting the charging infrastructure to renewables and not coal,” Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister of climate and the environment, told visiting Indian journalists. Nearly, 99 per cent of Norway’s electricity comes from clean hydro power.
The combination of generous incentives, alongside concerted efforts to set up supporting infrastructure, has enabled Norway to emerge as the world’s leading EV market with a 19 per cent BEV (battery electric vehicle, such as the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S that have no internal combustion engine or fuel tank but run on a fully electric drivetrain powered by rechargeable batteries) and 16 per cent market share in PHEVs (plug-in hybrid vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt, which have a hybrid drivetrain that use both an internal combustion engine and electric power for motive power, backed by rechargeable batteries that can be plugged into a power source) till June 2017. In February this year, Norway crossed the milestone of registering 1 lakh BEVs – equivalent to about three per cent of the total fleet of three million passenger and light commercial vehicles in the country.
But Norway’s electric push does not mean the nation is jettisoning fossil fuels, something that is cited as a contradiction of sorts in Norway’s climate policy – the fact that a country that counts oil and gas as its biggest revenue earner is hurtling towards an electric revolution. Fossil fuel, though, is clearly for the export markets. “Obviously, there’s a bit of a paradox. But my perspective is that this is transformation. When the combustion engine came, it was seen as an environmental improvement over horse-driven carts. Now we know better and we know that we have to move away from fossil fuels. But we can’t stop that overnight,” Helgesen said.
Norway, a country roughly the size of Maharashtra in terms of area, began the electric push in the 1990s in an effort to cut pollution, congestion, and noise in urban centres. Now, the country has the highest per capita all-electric (battery only) cars in the world – over 1,00,000 in a country of just over five million people. The country does not manufacture cars (with the exception of a Norwegian city electric car called Buddy produced by a homegrown firm Buddy Electric) and pretty much all of its vehicle fleet is imported.
The electric push works on an elaborate backbone of incentives that are central to the Norwegian EV policies, which has fostered what is undoubtedly the most advanced EV market in the world. For electric cars, the government waives the high taxes that it imposes on sales of other cars. It lets electric cars run on bus lanes, while toll roads are free for them. Parking lots offer a free charge, and new charging stations are continuously being built on the nation’s highways – a mix of regular charging stations and fast-chargers.
Ole Henrik Hannisdahl, chief executive officer of Green Contact, which builds and sets up fast-charging stations in the country, emphasises on the centrality of rolling out charging infrastructure to sustain the EV momentum. Installing a charging station typically costs upwards of 600,000 Norwegian kroner (around Rs 42 lakh). According to Hannisdahl, three things are necessary for the charging station to be installed and successful; a good location, proximity to a busy road and something for customers to do while the car is charging. What is important is also to offer customers a combination of regular charging ports (typically at homes and offices) alongside fast-charging options (at supermarkets and along highways).
Earlier this year, the country opened the world’s largest fast-charging station, which can fully charge up to 28 vehicles in about half an hour. That the fossil fuel lobby is not fighting back is evident from the fact that Statoil – Norway’s oil utility that is the country’s biggest company – operates one of the country’s biggest electric charging station at its headquarters. The trend is evident in other geographies as well, with oil major Royal Dutch Shell launching a fast-charging service for electric vehicles at three Shell service stations near London and in northern England in October this year, while in India, state-owned Indian Oil Corporation, in collaboration with Ola, launching the country’s first electric charging station at one of its petrol-diesel stations in Nagpur.
While Norway offers a bevy of carrots for EVs, there is considerable amount of stick that the others have to face. Norway taxes internal combustion engine cars more heavily than most European countries. Given the tax sops for EVs that cover both the upfront purchase and operations, there is a clear difference in the price equation for ICE and EV cars, with the Volkswagen e-Golf, the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and the Tesla Model S ranking in as the top selling new passenger car models in Norway.
Alongside the electric push, Norwegian public enterprise Enova SF, which is responsible for the promotion of environmentally friendly production and consumption of energy, is pushing for the next frontier – hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In 2017, Enova issued a support programme to support establishment of hydrogen infrastructure, as well as support for fleet users to purchase H2 vehicles and stations. Toyota’s Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that is one of the first such vehicles to be sold commercially, counts Norway and Denmark as among its biggest emerging markets, after the state of California in the US. Roger Hertzenberg, CEO of Uno-X Hydrogen, which develops Hydrogen stations, said, “Fuel cell electric vehicles are the most user-friendly zero-emission solution in Norway. Our goal is to provide the necessary infrastructure – securing our customers several zero emission-alternatives to choose from, and to meet the demand for H2 fuel in a convenient way at the lowest possible cost for the consumer.”
The letters “EK” are used as prefixes on licence plates of EVs in order to simplify any issues regarding the vehicle qualifying for the conditions for user incentives such a free parking, free passage through toll booths, while, correspondingly, hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles have “HY” as identifying letters. The prefixing of vehicles with either “EK” or “HY” is seen as having an informative effect on the public about zero-emission vehicles and their increasing presence on the city’s roads.
It’s not just cars. The Norwegians believe in taking their electric car push to seemingly ridiculous levels, including the world’s first commercial ferry operating with high-power wireless charging capability for its lithium-ion batteries – a project that potentially represents a breakthrough in the evolution of plug-in electrically operated vessels. A ferry – Ampere – is owned by Norled AS, one of Norway’s largest ferry operators, and has been in service since May 2015 and covers a six kilometres across a fjord between the townships of Lavik and Oppedal, Lars Jacob Engelsen, Deputy CEO of Norled said. The stretch of water is part of the European waterway E39, which is about 1.5 hours north of Norway’s second largest city, Bergen, on the country’s midwest coast. The installation of the electric ferry, which is powered by an electric powertrain that uses Siemens technology and includes an 800kWh battery pack weighing in at a hefty 11 tonnes powering two electric motors, one either side of the vessel, is an important step in the transition to carbon-neutral transports. Emissions from diesel-powered ferries have always been a problem in the country, especially those plying across Norway’s pristine fjords.