File picture: REUTERS
File picture: REUTERS

SA’s pioneering past in developing electric vehicles is not widely recognised. One of the primary technologies in today’s vehicles is the rechargeable lithium ion battery developed by Michael Thackeray and a team of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) scientists in the 1970s.

The CSIR’s sodium nickel chloride cell, known as Zebra, was also patented at the time.

Yet SA no longer contributes meaningfully to this key part of the electric vehicle technology value chain. Thackeray is now a senior researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, where he has contributed to the discovery of new battery materials.

The Zebra battery is made in Switzerland and features in a solar-powered bus in Australia. It is imported into SA under the FAAM brand name and remains one of the most reliable high-temperature batteries.

Optimal Energy in SA developed an all-electric family car, the Joule, which was well received in 2008 at the Paris Motor Show. However, it was never commercialised because investors saw it as too risky. Production stopped in 2012.

Other South African entrepreneurs are pushing ahead with electric mobility innovations. CSIR-based GridCars is developing a three-wheel, two-seater commuter car with an 80km range, and a light electric utility vehicle.

Pretoria firm 2Life will manufacture two-and four-seater electric vehicles with 80% local parts this year. It also plans an all-terrain vehicle and six-seaters for airports and the hospitality industry.

A small electric people transporter is being built by Mellowcabs in SA.

These innovations aim to move people and freight at a fraction of today’s cost.

After three years of rapid growth, there are now more than a million electric vehicles in use worldwide. There could be 20-million by 2020, based on the current rate of sales.

China is the biggest market with an estimated 400,000 electric vehicles in 2016, an eight-fold increase in two years. The US market swelled 50% to 150,000 over the same period. In Europe, electric vehicles account for 30% of new vehicle sales.

“SA penalises aspirant electric vehicle owners with a 43% tax, which puts them out of reach.”

SA’s battery electric vehicle fleet is a disappointing 500 cars — a fraction of the 7-million light vehicles on the roads.

In vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, more than 60% of energy generated is lost as heat, with only 15% converted to motion. Because of the polluting effect of fossil fuels, future mobility will be very different.

There is a window of opportunity for SA to stimulate industrial development while reducing oil imports, saving foreign exchange, creating jobs, improving air quality and tackling climate change.

The government and industry recognise the need to act. In December the Electric Vehicle Industry Association (Evia) was launched in Johannesburg as a consortium of policy makers, city officials, industry and academics.

Its members aim to accelerate and co-ordinate the shift to clean transport in SA, boosting investor confidence, and helping the government meet commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The longer we hold back, the more we will rely on other countries for innovative transport solutions while we still burn fossil fuels, waste energy, increase pollution and contribute to climate change.

The absence of industrial and consumer incentives is significantly responsible for SA’s slow adoption. More favourable policy is urgently needed, including priority support for local industries that create mobility systems adapted to African conditions.

At the Evia launch Bert Witkamp, the secretary-general of Europe’s electromobility industry association, Avere, said incentives were vital to Africa’s most significant change in mobility in a 100 years.

In markets like California and Norway, cash incentives of up to R100,000 decrease the capital cost of new electric vehicles to below the fossil fuel equivalent. Owners enjoy priority parking, the use of bus lanes and exemption from road tax and tolls. Ireland provides a €5,000 grant towards the purchase of new electric cars.

SA penalises aspirant electric vehicle owners with a 43% import and ad valorem tax, which puts electric mobility out of reach. This is absurd, given the government’s supposed commitment to clean energy, green transport and developing new industrial sectors.

The right incentives need to flow from the sensible alignment of policy by government departments responsible for energy, transport, cities and industry. The government now appears to be on the brink of providing supportive e-mobility policies.

The introduction of new energy vehicles typically covers the affairs of more than one government department. The UK’s solution was to create an Office of Low Emission Vehicles, with representatives from different ministries.

Norway has decreed that all new cars will be electric by 2025. Paris, Mexico City, Athens and other cities plan to ban diesel vehicles from their city centres to reduce pollution.

Co-ordinated development of charging infrastructure is also required. Ireland is installing national fast-charging infrastructure every 50km, and Europe is developing fast-charging corridors.

SA’s charging infrastructure is still in demonstration phase and the current approach is to develop it at a municipal level.

Such infrastructure is part of the climate action plan for Tshwane, which boasts two solar-powered charging stations. The city is encouraging developers to install solar charging stations at malls. Cape Town will soon add 15 electric buses to the MyCiti fleet.

Evia’s members are committed to a mass campaign of consumer awareness of clean energy options.

It is time to build on our illustrious past in the electric vehicle sector, not ignore it.

• Snyman is the head of the green mobility programme at the South African National Energy Development Institute and director of the South African Low Carbon Transport Programme of the UN Industrial Development Organisation. He drives an electric vehicle.

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