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The Climate Race

Electric cars are Europe’s current trend

Stephen Beard Nov 16, 2009
The Climate Race

Electric cars are Europe’s current trend

Stephen Beard Nov 16, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: The big United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen next month is still on. But expectations were officially lowered over the weekend. Meeting in Singapore on the sidelines of an Asian economic summit, leaders acknowledged a deal is not going to get done in the Danish capital. But they do hope to have something binding by the end of next year.

But all this isn’t just about saving the planet. Green technology is already worth trillions of dollars: solar panels, wind turbines, charging posts for electric cars.

So this week in our ongoing series “The Climate Race,” we’re going to look at how different countries are going after that green business. Global deal, or no. From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports the Europeans believe they have a pretty good approach.

STEPHEN BEARD: Emily Furzer works for a hedge fund in central London. Her colleagues drive expensive, powerful cars.

That’s her boss showing off in his turbo-charged Aston Martin. But Emily runs a rather more modest vehicle.

EMILY FURZER: Bit of a tight squeeze I’m afraid. Oops…

The tiny, low-speed, all-electric G-Wiz.

FURZER: Driving the G-Wiz is quite a strange experience for me because I actually really enjoy driving quite fast sports cars.

BEARD: You’re quite flashy on the quiet, then?

FURZER: I don’t know about on “the quiet” even. But the G-Wiz kind of is the absolute polar opposite of that. But at the same time it’s hugely convenient, and I love driving around London in it.

Emily bought her electric car only partly because of concern about the environment. Tax breaks and other government concessions were a bigger factor. There’s no congestion charge for an electric car, saving $13 a day. There’s no annual car tax which could have cost her $750 a year. Oh, and parking in central London is free.

FURZER: Without those advantages I probably, not probably, I definitely wouldn’t have bought a G-Wiz. So yes, the regulatory framework is of paramount importance.

Like most European countries, Britain slaps heavy taxes on fossil fuels like gasoline. That makes the cost of running Emily’s electric car even more attractive in comparison. Battery charging at home sets her back only $15 a month. Across Europe a mixture of subsidies, tax-breaks and regulation is creating a new class of green consumer.

And says Mark Nicholls of Environmental Finance Magazine, a whole lot of new clean tech companies, too.

MARK NICHOLLS: So, you’ve got very big Danish companies making wind turbines, Germany has a leading position in the solar sector because of very generous subsidies for electricity from solar panels. Equally some of the biggest wind developers are Spanish companies.

Germany is so far ahead that soon its green industries will overtake its car-making and engineering sectors. Britain is not as big a player yet. But a small army of entrepreneurs here is trying to create new industries to serve the green consumer.

Take Emily. Like all electric car users, she suffers from range anxiety. Her battery runs down after only 30 miles.

Enter Elektrobay, a curbside electric charging post.

FURZER: So I just touch my tag on the side of the post. That automatically opens up the front of the Elektrobay. Plug in. The lights are on. The light is green and that shows it’s charging. I can go away, leave it now.

London has 100 of these “smart” charging posts as part of a pilot. Electronic cards activate them. When the service goes live, the cost will be automatically added to the driver’s utility bill.

FURZER: This infrastructure is invaluable. When I first bought my car there were no Elektrobay posts or any other type of charging posts available in London, and I could only charge at home.

At the Tenkay electronics factory near Brighton, Elektrobay’s boss, Calvey Taylor-Haw, is stepping up production. That way, he says, he’ll be ready when all the big car makers launch mass market electric vehicles.

CALVEY TAYLOR-HAW: They’ll start to trickle into the marketplace next year 2010. By 2011, they’re going to start coming into the marketplace in significant numbers. 2012, there’ll be very large volumes.

So far he’s built 500 charging posts: Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, even Saudi Arabia have bought them. Taylor-Haw believes his post could become the world standard.

TAYLOR-HAW: We’ve been in the marketplace probably longer than anybody else. Next month it will be three years. I don’t think anyone else can actually say they’ve had infrastructure in place working reliably, charging cars anywhere on the planet at the moment.

But as the scramble to carve up the green market gathers pace, even competitors much further ahead, like the Germans, are skittish. They fear competition from a surprising quarter. Last year, Germany was overtaken as the top exporter of renewable technology by another industrial power. It wasn’t the U.S. It was China.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: Tomorrow, China’s approach to growing green. We aired the first installment of our series “The Climate Race” at the end of last month.

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