The UK have recently announced it will accelerate plans to transition motorists to zero emissions vehicles with a bold commitment to end the sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Norway has been the world leader in electric car usage for several years, claiming the highest percentage of electric vehicles (EVs) sales in Europe. The Nordic country is often looked to by others trying to encourage the transitions to EVs as a successful and pioneering example to follow. This article looks at what led to Norway’s success, whether the UK is learning from its Nordic neighbour, and what remains to be done for the UK to succeed in its race to end the sales of combustion vehicles.
Norway: The Global Forerunner
Norway was a pioneer in encouraging EVs and is now the global fore runner in the EV market. In 2020, Norway accomplished a global record, becoming the first country where EVs made up for over 50% of all new cars sold. This is a drastic increase from just decade ago, when EVs made up only 1% of the country’s total car market. So, what convinced Norwegians that zero-emissions vehicles are the future?
The countries EV success started with a rock and roll revolution. In 1989, the lead singer of the 1980s band A-ha and the head of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona set off on a road trip in a converted electric Fiat Panda. As they drove around the country’s capital, Oslo, they ignored all the parking restrictions and refused to pay any road tolls or police fines. Eventually, the authorities seized the little Fiat Panda, and it was auctioned to cover the cost of the fines. However, thanks to the stunt’s mass media attention the imagination of the Norwegian population was captured and pressure mounted for authorities to encourage the use of EVs. From the early 90’s the government began to implement exemptions for zero-emissions vehicles.
The first incentive was introduced in 1990 when the import tax on EVs was abolished. Initially a temporary scheme, it became permanent in 1996. The Norwegian government has since implemented a succession of policies to encourage drivers to purchase EVs, both reducing the price of the vehicles and offering benefits to owners. Over the past two decades, EV motorists have enjoyed a combination of no annual road tax, free municipal parking, no charges on toll roads or ferries, and access to bus lanes.
Although many countries are now looking to Norway for the answers to fuel their own electric car revolution, Norway’s incentives were not an immediate success. It was not until 2010, two decades after the governments first tax incentive, that the number of EVs registered in Norway reached 1,000 a year. Before this point electric vehicles were owned in small numbers by enthusiasts. The main EVs available were the Th!nk and Buddy: they had a small boxy design, a limited battery range, with only space for two passengers and no luggage. They were perfect for squeezing into tight city car parks, but not much good for the many Norwegian families who needed a vehicle to get them to their holiday homes in the mountains or by the coast. It was not until 2010, when car producers such a Nissan, Mitsubishi and Citroen began producing EVs based on the design of conventional cars that EV sales started to increase.
Despite the slow start, Norway is now on the road to having a fully electrified car fleet and it doesn’t look likely to slow down. The figures from December 2020 suggest the sales of EVs are only set to increase, as the record-breaking month saw EVs command an incredible 66.7% market share of all new cars sold. As Norway continues to race ahead, the UK have been less successful in encouraging the uptake of EVs.
The United Kingdom: Playing catch-up
It wasn’t a lack of ambition that caused the UK to fall behind Norway in the EV transition. At the G8 summit in 2008, the then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown demanded a ‘green car revolution’ and boldly announced that all new cars purchased in the UK in 2020 could be electric. Even Norway, with all its efforts and EV success fame, has only made it half-way to this ambitious vision despite having been incentivising EVs for almost two decades at the time of Brown’s announcement. Far from Brown’s predictions, EVs only made up for a mere 6.6% of new car sales in the UK in 2020. So, what has the UK been doing to incentives EVs and where is it going wrong?
Whereas Norway introduced a breadth of policies to encourage the uptake of EVs, ranging from tax reductions to driving benefits, the UK opted to focus on providing purely financial incentives. These began in 2011, when the government launched the ‘plug in grant scheme’ offering 25% of the value of a new EV, up to £5000. The amount available under the scheme was increased to 35% of the cars value in 2015, but the grant cap has been continually reduced since then, falling to £4500 in 2015 and is now at £3000. An array of eligibility criteria means that many EV models are not eligible for the grant.
As well as the working to reduce the upfront cost of EVs, the government also sought to tackle the lack of EV infrastructure in the country. In September 2019, a Charging Investment Fund was announced, securing £500 million to provide 3,000 rapid charging points across the country by 2024. Grants are also available for the installation of home charging points, although the funds available are dwindling. When the scheme began in 2011, the public were eligible for 75% of the cost of the installation of a domestic EV charger up to the value of £1000, but since March 2020 the grant available has been capped at £350. With the average installation costing around £800, that still leaves a considerable cost to be fronted by the individual.
This governments reducing and limited funding for EVS is likely key reason why the UK is trailing behind Norway. A recent study found that in 2019 EVs in Norway were 0.3% cheaper than combustion vehicles, whereas they were 1.3% more expensive in the UK compared with similar combustions alternatives. Although the UK has a long way to go to catch up with Norway, things are moving in the right direction. It was only two years ago when EVs first made up for over 1% of the UK car market, but the market is accelerating towards electrification, with a 180% year-on-year rise in the number of EVs sold in 2020, making the pace of change much quicker than in Norway.
A tale of two cities
Cities’ dense populations, vibrant dynamics and high concentration of wealth, make them prime locations for the adoption of new and developing technology. Both Norway’s capital, Oslo, and Britain’s capital London are known for their green spaces and museums, but how do they compare when it comes to EVs?
Oslo: EV capital of the world
Like Norway as a whole, Oslo was an early pioneer in encouraging its urban population to invest in zero-emissions vehicles. Investments began in 2008 when the City Council launched a scheme to reduce its carbon emissions that targeted improving EV infrastructure. The scheme set a target of providing 400 EV charging points in the city by 2011 with 4 million Norwegian kroner ($ 730 000 / £ 450 000) allocated each year for the installations.
For EV owners in the city, the benefits of this investment were immense: the charging points were free to use. The authorities decided the revenues from the charging points would be less than the cost of implementing complex payment systems, so users could fill up their cars without spending a penny. They also enjoyed free parking across the city and access to bus lanes, giving EV drivers a free pass from the cities rush hour traffic. With EVs growing in popularity, the free ride didn’t last forever. The huge uptake in EVs in the city as result of these policies led to a curb in the exemptions afforded to EVs. In March 2019 small fees were implemented to use the recharge points and as of Jan 2021 EV drivers now need two people in the car to be able to use public transport lanes.
With the wavering benefits, is it still worth driving an EV in Oslo? Although there are fewer benefits to todays EV motorists compared with the early up-takers of the vehicles, motorists do now have access to over 2,000 charging points across the city. Charging EVs has now become part of the daily routine for many Oslo city dwellers, with the availability of charging points making it possible for owners to run errands whilst charging their vehicle without needing to search for a plug. It would seem the council’s investment in infrastructure has paid off, encouraging over 50,000 pure EV on the cities’ street and awarding the city the highest number of EV’s per capita in the world.
Despite this success, Oslo’s city council is not content to stop and enjoy their top spot in the global EV charts. The city is continuing to invest in pioneering technology to fuel the transition to EVs, not only for private vehicles but for the cities transport fleet. By 2023, the city is working to be the world’s first metropolitan area to install wireless, induction-based charging stations for electric taxis. Charging plates in taxi ranks will allow electric taxis to charge while waiting to collect passengers. According to Sture Portvik, Oslo’s electro mobility manager, ‘Wireless charging is a potential game changer’ improving the efficiently, cost and hassle of recharging vehicles, all benefits that will extend beyond the cities electric taxi fleet. Oslo looks set to remain the pioneer in the EV transition.
London: Picking up the pace
London was slower off the mark in the drive to implement and incentivise EV usage in the capital. Although efforts were made to reduce traffic pollution as early as 2003 when a charge for driving in the city was introduced, it was not until 2011 that low and zero emissions vehicles were given reduced rates. It was the same year that the first London wide network of charging point was introduced. At a time when Oslo already had 400 EV charging points, the London scheme began to initially provide just 150 EV chargers across the city that is 2.3 times the size.
Despite starting later than Oslo, incentivising the shift to EVs has become a priority for London’s City Council. With London’s dirty air breaching legal limits of pollution and leading to thousands of premature deaths a year, it is an issue that could not be left unaddressed. In 2018, the London Mayor published a Delivery Plan to increase EVs in the city and announced that £18 million would be invested in EV infrastructure to install rapid charging point across London. To support the plan, the Mayor established the world first EV Infrastructure Taskforce with experts from both the public and private sector including businesses, energy experts, London boroughs and government to accelerate the switch towards EVs. The Taskforce held numerous workshops, stakeholder meetings and round-table discussions, but did they manage to translate all that talk into action?
Incredibly, despite the set-backs from the Covid-19 pandemic, London has already exceeded the targets set out in the Delivery Plan. Initially aiming for 300 rapid charge points and 3,500 slow to fast chargers by the end of 2020, London has exceeded this target with more than 500 rapid charge points and over 5,500 residential chargers now available. Although the city was slower off the mark than Oslo, London continues to pick up the pace, accelerating its EV ambitions. In 2020, the London Major brought forward London’s Zero Carbon target by two decades, from 2050 to 2030. This includes goals for all new cars sales to be zero-emission by 2030 and for all taxis and private hire vehicles be zero-emission capable by 2033.
Is the future Green?
The UK still has a long way to go to catch up with Norway, but rapid advancements in EV technology will aid the countries accelerating transition to clean vehicles. It took over two decades incentivising EV’s before Norway saw the market share of the vehicles exceed 1%. The UK transition is happening at a quicker rate, taking just 8 years from the first EV incentive to reach the same milestone. The EV technology has drastically improved from the 90’s when Norway began encouraging a shift towards EVs. Norway’s pioneering EV drivers in the early 00’s had to put up with vehicles that had a limited range and speed; the Ford thi!nk was a popular model but required patience with a top speed of just 60 mph. By comparison, the Nissan leaf, the most common EV on the UK market today, can go double the distance and break the motorway speed limit with a top speed of 98 mph.
The cost of EVs still remains a limiting factor in the UKs progress. A survey by the RAC found that price is the greatest barrier to the uptake of EVs, with 78% of motorists saying EVs are still too expensive compared with similar conventional vehicles. Until the UK incentives have as much impact as they do in Norway on the cost of EVs compared with standard vehicles, the UK may remain significantly behind the Nordic frontrunner. With the UK continuing to reduce the subsidies available for EVs year on year, it seems unlikely that the government incentives will bring the costs of EVs below combustion vehicles. However, technological development may help here too, as the cost of batteries is rapidly falling. In 2010, a small-car battery of 30kWh would have cost $30,000 to produce, but a scale-up in production, reduced materiality costs and improved technology means a battery pack today costs around a tenth of that price. As the price of EVs is reduced with these improvements, the UK market for EVs could increase significantly with consumers needing less encouraging to make the switch.
The good news is that the changes that have been made look set to stay. A recent survey found that 90% of EV owners would not consider switching back to a combustion vehicle. The initial challenge of convincing combustion car owners to switch to an EV remains, but once it is overcome owners rarely look back to the noisy, dirty, and expensive vehicles they once loved. Although it could be a few years before the UK reach the Norway’s EV transition achievements, it is likely the UK will continue taking steady steps forward with little risk of EVs market share regressing. The UK may be behind far Gordon Brown’s vision of an all-electric vehicle fleet in 2020, but the future of UK car sales still looks electric green.