Fuel for thought: How viable are electric vehicles in south africa

Is going fully electric really an option in 2019, or is South Africa still under-equipped?

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Electric vehicles have been the talk of the town over the last five years, especially in developed parts of Europe and California, where legislation and Political Will have facilitated the mass roll-out of a variety of different electric variables. From the trend setting and affordable Nissan Leaf, trusted Lexus RX hybrid, to the futuristic Tesla, through to the hoards of electric scooters that wiz around their urban jungles.

Drivers get a sense of ‘doing the right thing’ when they decide to purchase a ‘green’ vehicle. But are electric vehicles really any cleaner and kinder on the environment?

Unless you have a solar panel setup at home or at work, chances are you’ll be running your vehicle on electricity that originated from a coal powered power station, which accounts for approximately 80% of electricity production in South Africa.

One just has to look at the air pollution around Mpumalanga’s coal power stations, and effect on nearby farming activities to see that you’re unlikely to be propelling your car on anything green, not to mention the undesirable toxic waste from the aging Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.

However, the incredible amount energy and electricity involved in mining, refining and transporting traditional fossil fuels leaves a sizable footprint on the environment too, without adding the on-road pollution from the cars. There is no quick answer to the fuel debate.

Thankfully there have been important advances in battery technology over the years.

The lifecycle of the lead-acid battery in earlier electric vehicles was only approximately five years, but with the advancement of lithium-ion technology in the current range of vehicles has seen an important increase in lifespan. Jaguar is now providing a warranty for eight years or 160,000 kilometres on the 90kWh I-Pace battery.

However, the battery is not cheap to replace when it gets to the end of its lifecycle, and you’ll need to take the cost into account if you are planning to keep the car for a long period time. Latest research from the Automobile Association’s (AA) indicates that nearly 35% percent of South Africans keep their cars for more than 10 years.

It will be noteworthy to see how the uptick in electric vehicles will affect how long people keep their vehicles. The resale value will diminish faster the closer the battery gets to the end of its warranty. But the price of battery is likely to come down as technology advances and supply increases.

There have also been important advancements in battery recycling and reuse, which was a thorn in the side of the electric car debate in the past.

The introduction of thin solar panels on the next generation of electric vehicles, built into the roof and bonnet, will certainly decrease the cars’ carbon footprint, and reliance on the grid. This will be a major tipping point for sales. Instead of having to charge your vehicle, leave it out in the sun for a free top-up. With South Africa’s sunny climate, this technology is a no-brainer. Companies like Toyota and Hyundai are busy rolling out models onto the international market place.

Sadly, there is generally not enough roof-space on cars to have enough solar energy to completely charge the vehicle’s batteries on the move.

Busses and trucks, with their huge roof-space are far better suited to full solar power, with examples of solar powered busses in China, a country that is in dire need of cleaner transport.

Reliability

In terms of maintenance, fossil fuel engine cars require more regular servicing, maintenance and oil changes. They also have more moving parts, which could lead to issues. The electric vehicle, with its regenerative braking uses the brakes less, meaning longer periods between pad changes and less stress on the discs.

Some protagonists believe that an electric car battery will give fewer issues over an eight year period compared to a traditional combustion engine. But it really depends on what engine you are comparing the life of the battery to.

For example; according to a 2019 What Car long term customer survey from the UK, the BMW 1 Series (2004 – 2011) came out as the most unreliable. You could argue that you’ll run into some pricey engine repairs before you hit eight years or 160 000km. So a win for the electric car.

But if you compare a Japanese petrol engine from historically reliable Toyota or Honda, or a South Korean engine from no-nonsense Hyundai, one would expect a minimum of 10 years of trouble free motoring without any sinister engine malfunctions or major electrical work, provided it has been maintained regularly.

Missed opportunity

The surge in demand for lithium bi-products like Cobalt globally should be music to the ears of South Africa’s mining sector, which ought to have been in pole position to cash in. Global demand for battery minerals is projected to rise 8.9% per year through 2019 to 49,350 metric tons.

With the fragile state of the mining industry in South Africa there has been little long term planning to meet the demand. It’s more about survival for many companies. You can’t just flick a switch and the mine comes online. It takes many years of planning, and incredible amounts of capital to re-open an old mine or start afresh.

The current economic landscape and uncertainty is certainly not conducive to new mega mining projects, and South Africa will likely miss out on a golden battery opportunity. Not to mention the downstream business that we are letting slip through the net.

Government often talks of local beneficiation. With the level of technical expertise and natural resources, South Africa should really be making more Proudly South African batteries, from the initial mining stage, all the way to design, manufacturing and distribution. Metair is the sole South African company with lithium-ion battery production facilities.

So why go electric?

In a European setup, with an abundance of charging stations, it does become considerably cheaper to run fully electric vehicles. In terms of ‘on the road’ CO2 emissions they are clean, reducing smog in congested cities.

At the moment, the range of electric vehicles is the most limiting factor, especially in a South African context where people love to take long road trips down to the coast over the holidays.

Meanwhile, there has been an uptick in demand for mild-hybrid technology over the last 12 months, which is a combination of full sized petrol/diesel engine which is supported by an eclectic motor. Once the car is up to cruising speed, braking or stopped, the eclectic motor takes over and uses no fuel.

This is an option for South Africans who want to go electric, but still have the benefit of long cruising ranges. The electric motor provides greater efficiency by replacing the starter and alternator with a single device which assists the power train. It needs less battery power but is less economical to run than full hybrid models like the Toyota Prius, which uses its electric motor to help accelerate at slower speeds.

Appetite for electric

The European situation is far different from South Africa, or Australia, who have also had a sluggish uptick in demand for electric vehicles. With wide open spaces and clean air, there is less demand for electric vehicles in Australia, with the electric/hybrid car market claiming three percent of overall sales. Solar PV and batteries for home use are still not cheap enough for the man in the street to afford, which would be a game changer for fully electric vehicles. If you can charge your vehicle from solar PV or wind power, and don’t plan on going on long road trips, it does make sense going electric.

Alternatively, buy an electric car for town commuting and a second traditional vehicle for longer trips if your budget allows.

It’s all in the charge

Charging time is another moot point in electric car ownership, with an average of four hours. As you know with your phone, it still takes a good two hours to fully charge from flat with apps on. You can get a device that charges your phone in 30 minutes, but that is potentially at the cost of your battery’s expected life span.

Some experts say that the three minute charge will see the end of non-electric vehicles in cities. Basically, when you can charge your car in the same amount of time that it takes to fill your tank with fuel. However, this convenience may shorten the life of the current day battery. We have only seen a smattering of electric cars in South Africa, usually BMW i3s parked outside of trendy coffee shops in upmarket areas. There are currently 85 charging points in South Africa, with interest from filling stations to install more. But with government sticking to the 43% import tax on vehicles produced abroad, to protect our local car manufacturing interests, there is no price incentive for electric vehicles at this stage. In Europe, governments provide tempting financial carrots for people to change over. Developed countries don’t have to worry about load-shedding either, another factor that might put people off electric locally.

Bio-fuel blunder

South Africa has missed a beat in not blending environmentally friendlier bio-fuel into the market place

for older diesel engines, which were originally designed to run on it by inventor Rudolf Diesel. For years there has been legislation to ensure that two percent of South Africa’s diesel is bio-fuel, but these meagre targets have never been met sadly, with the shrinking sugar cane industry a prime candidate to benefit from increased production.

There is a misconception that bio-fuel is bad for engine life due to its more viscous nature. If made to international standards,

bio-fuel can be safely used on older diesel engines, in conjunction with a fuel conditioner. South African logistics companies have been adding the AdBlue formula to diesel trucks for years to help with better emissions and removing harmful pollutants.

So when you’re scrolling through the many vehicles for sale, don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer choice of fuel options. There is a place for hybrid electric technology in South Africa, with a growing number of manufacturers like Toyota/Lexus and Mercedes producing some excellent vehicles, but we are still a few years away from fully electric cars being a viable option for your average cash-strapped South African.

This will all change when there are numerous charging stations in our cities, solar panels are integrated into more vehicles, and better financial incentives for buyers. Going electric will become a no-brainer for urban commuting. Until such stage I’d recommend buying a small petrol engine car with high emissions standards, and give it some time for the price of electric cars to come down further, while battery technology also improves, making electric cars a mainstay.

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