Norway is the clear leader for electric vehicle (EV) market adoption in Europe, with a 75% market share in 2020, which is not completely surprising for an economy rich of its fossil oil and gas exports and which electricity is mostly renewable, 89% coming from hydropower, the combination of wealth and green electricity, quite rare in the democratic part of our planet, where your choice as a customer is unrestricted by authoritarian will, being what is required today for electromobility to rise and shine.
The value proposition of EV in (large) urban centers is not that much disputed today, clear benefits in air and noise pollution giving supremacy over internal combustion engines vehicles (ICEV). But the ambition for a full replacement of the car pool by 2050 cannot rely on EV in urban usage only. Recharging infrastructure may be built with time, and a lot of public money, but the clear prerequisite is the availability of renewable electricity, as EV running on coal-generated power does not make sense from a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions point of view, compared to ICEV running even on a minor share of low-carbon fuels, like biofuels.
This summer of intense drought in Europe, possibly the worst in five hundred years according to the European Commission Joint Research Center, possibly a template of “average” summers of the 2040es, has been bad news for renewable electricity generation. As expected in any summer, the wind is blowing less than in the winter, but the sun shines more. Droughts are much more ominous: rivers with a much lower flow and a higher temperature constrain the nuclear plants capacity and hydropower suffers as the level of water retention upstream of dams gets lower than what is deemed safe, especially when the situation has been worsened by lower winter and spring rainfall and snowfall and glacier shrinking. Water management and usage is becoming a critical subject, with climate change, and in the context of a significant abuse of water end-use by our society, like for industrial agriculture or data centers.
The above-mentioned stress on hydropower capacity has been happening in Norway this summer, when retention level upstream of hydropower dams dropped on average to an “unsafe” level, never witnessed before. The immediate consequence was the restriction of renewable electricity export to the rest of Europe, not welcome with natural gas restrictions due to the war in Ukraine, also with a fear that further power cuts, in the country this time, could become necessary in the fall if the situation does not improve, rain-dance or not.
As explained in the IRENA REN21 report, hydropower capacity does not really grow worldwide, + 1.5 % in 2020, and most of capacity addition was in China. 21st century modern renewable power generation, sun- or wind-based, grows at the same volumetric pace as global power demand growth, even if the situation, market share-wise, seems to slightly improve in favor of renewables in 2022. Nuclear seems to curry more favor, even in Japan and Germany, but extra capacity takes a long time to get connected to the grid.
So, if electricity demand keeps on growing and a climate change consequence, like the one we saw in Europe this summer, and which could become regular, handicaps the effort of renewables to overtake fossil sources in power generation, the prerequisite for EV mass adoption will materialize way after 2035, when the EU, and California, intends to ban ICEV sales. We should worry and, reluctantly, accept that EV and ICEV may have to coexist for much longer than politically expected by climate-fighting governments. Which calls for two extra comments:
If this coexistence is not acceptable in terms of climate change consequences, will transport have to morph, downwards in terms of personal mobility or towards more public transport, quite a challenge in terms of social acceptability in our democracies?
If the social price to fight and change personal mobility present habits is too high, shouldn’t low-carbon solutions for liquid fuels, already in place and just waiting for further support to grow, take the front seat to reduce the carbon footprint of transport, rather than putting all efforts in electricity and hydrogen for future mobility?
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).