Is South Africa Ready for Electric Cars?

By: Jana Hofmann, Leading Researcher, Climate Neutral Group, 23 October 2017

Electric cars are on their way to hit the global automotive market. Countries like Great Britain and France have published their intention to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 as part of their ambitious plan to meet their targets under the Paris Agreement and to deal with high pollution in cities. Technological innovation, such as long-lasting battery and increasing number of charging points is likely to drive down the costs of electric cars and to encourage ever more consumers to buy electric vehicles. According to research conducted by the International Energy Agency (IEA), China, Japan and US are currently the leading markets for electric car sales.

We have taken a closer look at the development of electric cars in South Africa and to what extent electric vehicles can have an impact on country’s emissions and improve air quality.

(Source: IEA, 2017)

Why should South Africa go electric?

South Africa is the most developed and technologically advanced country in Africa. Its economy is dominated by a large energy intensive coal mining industry. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the electricity sector accounts for about 66% of SA’s CO2 emissions total, followed by the transportation sector with 13%, the industrial sector with 12%, the residential and commercial and public service sectors with 6%, and the other sectors with 3%. Road transportation is responsible for the largest fuel consumption in the transportation sector accounting to 91% of overall emissions.

The transportation sector is still dealing with the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, which resulted in unequal urban development and fragmented human settlements forcing people to travel long distances from home to work. However, the transportation sector is regarded as a crucial engine for economic growth and social development in the country. For example, owning a private car is a key symbol of economic success and represents a big aspiration for many South Africans. While the vehicle ownership and the demand for transport is steadily increasing in South Africa, transport is having a significant impact on air quality, land resources and biodiversity. We have already witnessed a brown-coloured smog over Cape Town during some winter and summer months. The accumulation of gaseous and particulate pollutants can cause increased risks of respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart disease, and impose a burden on the medical health care system resulting in substantial medical costs.

Under the Paris Agreement, South Africa has made a commitment to reduce its GHG emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025 under the business-as-usual (BAU) levels. The National Climate Change Response Paper directly addresses the transport sector, aiming to improve the efficiency of the government vehicle fleet by 2020 and to encourage new efficient vehicle technologies, such as electric vehicles. The Department of Transport published its “Draft Green Transport strategy” revealing that it plans to roll out 3 million electric cars on the road by 2050, with R6.5 trillion invested in the industry over the next four decades. However, is this a realistic plan?

What is the current situation of electric cars in South Africa?

Currently, there are only 300 pure electric cars out of 7 million conventional vehicles on the road. There are only 40 stations at which electric cars can be charged. Local manufacturers are charged a 25% tax duty on electric cars, while 18% of import tax is applied to conventional vehicles. On top of the import tax, there is also a luxury tax to pay as only a few electric vehicles are sold in the country. The local manufacturer are BMW and Nissan. The starting price of an electric car is around R500,000 ($38,000 or €32,000). It looks like the electric car market currently attracts consumers in the high-end market. To enable electric vehicles to become mainstream cars, their purchase price must be adjusted to make it affordable for an average consumer. However, what are the costs of running an electric vehicle?

The charging costs depend on the vehicle’s efficiency. For example, Nissan Leaf 2016 model can drive up 190 km on a full battery, consuming 21.25 kWh per 100km. Based on the research conducted by the uYilo e-Mobility Technology Innovation Programme at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the average South African drives approximately 30,000 km per year, which is equivalent to R30.40 per 100km or R9,120 at the household kWh consumption rates (Eskom, 2017). Compared to the current petrol price of R12.81 it appears that an electric car is much cheaper to run than a conventional petrol vehicle. Although an electric car requires less attention in terms of a regular service (e.g. changing clutch, radiators or fuel pump), it may need a specialised maintenance due to its advanced technology. These costs are still unknown.

To be in line with the efforts to reduce carbon emissions and to improve air quality in urban areas, the City of Cape Town has taken progressive steps and scheduled the arrival of 11 electric buses by the end of 2017. The City of Cape Town aims to become the first city on the African continent to use electric buses for public transport. The electric buses will be supplied by the Chinese green energy firm BYD, who will also provide the City of Cape Town with charging stations for buses, data management systems, spare parts, technical support, training for the bus drivers and fleet maintenance services to replace batteries if required. The electric buses aim to be in operation in 2018. This initiative will not only help reduce air pollution in the city, but also create jobs for local residents.

Although electric cars are the key to improving local air quality and mitigating climate change, I argue in my study conducted at the University of East Anglia that it is an ineffective and counterproductive activity to promote electric cars as long as the electricity sector is largely powered by coal. The introduction of electric cars is sensible if the electricity sector is decarbonised by using renewable energy sources.

Currently, South Africa does not have sufficient infrastructure yet to support the roll out of electric cars. The electric vehicle industry is under-developed and heavily taxed. Electric cars are still a long way from becoming mainstream vehicles in the country. However, we are seeing an inevitable global trend towards hybrid and electric cars. South Africa can either be a passive player or embrace the technological change. While the country is making slow efforts to decarbonise its electricity sector, it can introduce some practical steps, such as implementing subsidies and lowering import duties for manufacturers to encourage electric cars entering the market.

While electric cars have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions and to minimise other harmful pollutants, they will not resolve the traffic congestion experienced by commuters in major South African cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. To resolve this problem, all three tiers of South African government, local, provincial and national need to promote less use of private cars on the road, make more investments in public transport and to introduce variety of modes and initiatives favouring pedestrians and cyclists

For more information, contact Jana Hofmann on 

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