Range anxiety used to be the main obstacle to electric car ownership but there’s now less concern about how far the car will travel than there is about how far patience and money will stretch.
While batteries are getting better — packing ever greater distances into a single charge — electric car owners in Ireland are finding it increasingly difficult to access the public charging network.
There are 900 public charging points across the country which is substantial given the relatively small number of electric vehicles — around 3,500.
But the greatest concentration of electric cars is in Dublin and according to David McCabe of the Irish Electric Vehicle Owners Association, it’s not unusual to encounter lengthy delays waiting for a charging point to become free.
With parking spaces a scarcity in most cities, there’s a natural reluctance to take too many out of general use and reserve them for electric car charging only, but the alternative — locating them in places people don’t want to park — is not always attractive either.
“A woman is expected to drive to the back end of a car park where it’s empty, desolate and unlit,” says Mr McCabe.
“That’s not conducive to convincing people that this is a long-term reliable process. They need charging points in central locations, they need canopies, lights and a feeling of security.”
Ideally, cars could be charged at home and only need occasional topping up after long journeys but not every home has a driveway or other suitable spot to install a home charging point while apartment-living makes electric car ownership particularly difficult.
“Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council are an exception — they’ve taken a solo run on it, making it a condition of planning — but most apartment dwellers are in a real bind. They are completely at the mercy of the management in control of the apartment block and the vast majority of them can’t get charging points in,” Mr McCabe says.
It doesn’t help matters that no new public charging points have been installed for two years — since the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) began a consultation process on the question of who should own the charging network.
ESB established the network five years ago with the help of funding from the CRU Innovation Fund and Europe and has been maintaining it since through a charge on the bills of every ESB customer, making charging a car free to the owner.
But the CRU consultation ended in October, concluding that the network should be sold off by auction — a process likely to take a number of years — and in the meantime the practice of collecting money from all ESB customers should end and electric car owners should start paying at charging points.
“The whole thing is in limbo,” says Mr McCabe, “Is the ESB going to invest in the necessary IT to support a pricing regime to recoup the cost from electric vehicle owners if they aren’t going to own the network? No-one seems to have thought this through.”
The situation needs resolving — and quickly. Climate Change Minister Denis Naughten has been talking up the need for more rapid charge points (there are just 70 in the country) and his officials have been looking at ways of better locating charging points such as at specialised charging parks beside motorways but none of this can happen while the questions over ownership and pricing remain.
ESB said it was reviewing the CRU’s decision paper and would be engaging with the regulator on its contents so it could not comment on future plans for the charging network until that process was complete.
Most electric vehicle owners expected a pricing regime would be introduced at some stage but it won’t be the only encroachment on their pockets.
They currently also enjoy grants towards the cost of buying a car, greatly reduced motor tax, generous VRT relief and — as of this week a new grant towards installing home charging points and a promise of some toll exemptions — but those incentives are all expected to be whittled away over the coming years, or at least to be diminished by the introduction of new road use charges that would apply to all motorists.
It’s all part of a plan to radically overhaul the way the State generates revenue from motoring which, up to now, has been providing at least €4bn to the Exchequer annually — ensuring vital funds to pay for road maintenance.
According to the Department of Finance, that revenue was made up in 2017 of €950m in motor tax, €820m in VRT, €626m in excise duties on petrol, €1440m in excise on diesel, €54m in carbon tax on petrol and €178m in carbon tax on diesel.
Transport is responsible for 20% of the country’s carbon emissions and emissions from the sector are growing, putting the Government under pressure to rapidly reduce the number of petrol and diesel cars on the road in order to meet climate change commitments.
If it achieves that, it faces a major dip in revenue unless it brings electric vehicles into the tax net but if it piles the taxes on to electric too soon or too heavily, the incentive to convert away from petrol Department of Finance and diesel will be lost.
The department is working on a plan but Mr McCabe warns that a delicate balancing act lies ahead.
“Irish vehicle owners are very conservative and the rate of converting to electric and hybrid has been very slow. What has worked in convincing them has been the opportunity to buy at low cost and run a car for very little money so the biggest immediate challenge for this whole project is going to be what happens when we start pricing for charging.
“We’ve used up our early adopters at this stage - the owners who were enthusiastic about the technology and wanted to make a statement. To get the general motoring public on board, it has to make sense for them.
“Altruism only works to a point. Most people at the end of the day count what’s in their pockets so it has to make sense operationally, it has to make sense monetarily.”