Global carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles have been a major contributor to climate change over recent decades, prompting a need to move to cleaner sources of energy to power vehicles.

Tesla has been one of the companies that has dedicated itself to moving towards electric powered vehicles. In 2014, Tesla announced their plans to construct a “Gigafactory” to produce the lithium-ion batteries required to power their proposed annual production of 500 000 cars. Tesla’s goal is to prompt the rest of the world to change to electric powered vehicles through the production of enough cars. By January of this year, Gigafactory 1 in Nevada, was about a third complete, and commenced with the production of their lithium-ion battery cells that are to be used in Tesla’s energy storage products and Model 3 cars. According to Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, the Gigafactory, which is predicted to be finished in 2020, will be able to produce more lithium-ion batteries in one year “than were produced worldwide in 2013”. The Gigafactory, which is being constructed with the help of a $1.6 billion investment from Panasonic Corp, “will also be powered by renewable energy sources, with the goal of achieving net zero energy”, claims Tesla. By the end of the year, Elon Musk is expected to announce plans for Tesla to build more Gigafactories outside of the USA, which won’t just be building battery cells but also full vehicles.

On 22 May, Daimler AG, the German automotive corporation that produces Mercedes-Benz and Maybach cars, began the construction of their own battery plant. German Chancellor Angela Merkel broke ground on the 500 million-euro lithium-ion energy storage unit plant, which highlights the rapid shift that European countries and companies are making in investing in the electric vehicle field. Countries like Sweden and Poland have plans to construct their own battery assembly factories to supply the demand from automakers that are trying to make the move to electric vehicles. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the battery manufacturing business is currently controlled by Asia, with Japanese and Korean companies being the top vendors, and China planning to increase their number of factories.

Europe’s movement towards electric vehicles and away from combustion-powered cars has been further exemplified by France announcing their plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, as part of its plans to meet the targets set by the Paris climate accord. According to France’s new Ecology Minister, Nicolas Hulot, their car manufacturers are more than capable of making the switch: “Our [car] makers have enough ideas in the drawer to nurture and bring about this promise…which is also a public health issue”. The French government also plans on giving financial incentives to citizens who switch from petrol vehicles to a cleaner alternative, saying “the government will offer each French person a bonus to replace their diesel car dating before 1997 or petrol [car] from before 2001 [to] a new or second-hand vehicle”.

France is just one of a number of countries that are planning on phasing out combustion-powered cars, in the hopes of meeting climate change goals and improving air quality. Netherlands and Norway have considered banning petrol and diesel cars by 2025, while Germany wants to do away with 100% of combustion-powered cars by 2030. France’s announcement came a day after Volvo announced that as of 2019 they would only build fully electric and hybrid cars. Other automotive companies such as Peugeot, Citroën, Renault, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Ford and Nissan have made moves towards electrifying their vehicles.

Despite electric vehicles being regarded as a cleaner alternative to petrol and diesel, there are still concerns over the impact that the lithium-ion batteries may have on the environment, particularly the way the batteries are handled after they are no longer useful. Since the electric vehicle market is still a growing market, there aren’t many battery recycling facilities, however, there is hope that the number of facilities will increase as the number of electric vehicles increases.

The South African electric vehicle market is considerably smaller than the USA and European countries, with under 200 cars being sold in the last year, according to Dr Jörg Lalk, of the UP Graduate School of Technology Management. In Dr Lalk’s opinion electric vehicles aren’t as marketable in South Africa, because they are too expensive, there very few charging stations, and they are unsuitable for long distance travel, as they will need to be recharged. Dr Lalk said, “The typical buyer of an EV (electric vehicle) in SA would only do so because it may be seen as “fashionable” in certain circles and in any case, the average South African is not financially able to purchase such a vehicle as it is outside of his/her financial means. On a global level, there are only a few countries where EVs sell reasonably well, notably all of the first world and at the top e nd of economic ability”. Dr Lalk went on to say that, “in the next few years sales in SA will increase mainly due to the pending release of a Tesla vehicle here, but again the market would still be basically addressing the typical “boutique” customer and not the average person”.

According to Dr Lalk, plans to move away from fossil-fuel powered cars would not be feasible for South Africa, as “it requires long-term vision and (financial) support from government, something I cannot see happening”. Dr Lalk also thinks that factors such as the large investments in fossil fuel powered cars, and the possible unemployment of 100 000 petrol station attendants, would make it difficult to make the switch t o electric vehicles. Dr Lalk also thinks that pollution would sti ll be a factor with electric vehicles, as the cars would be charged via an electricity grid that is supplied by coal-fired power stations.

Image: Michelle Hartzenberg

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