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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

The global electric vehicle (EV) revolution is on us. In Norway, 90% of passenger vehicle sales in 2023 were EVs, while in China — the biggest car market in the world — EV sales accounted for 42% of all new cars sold. 

While SA is lagging far behind these countries (the latest figures put EV sales here at a mere 1.45%), it is good news that the government is starting to respond to this seismic shift in the automotive industry. The release of the EV white paper at the end of 2023, combined with finance minister Enoch Godongwana’s budget speech announcement on financial incentives to encourage EV production consumption, is a huge leap forward.

In his budget speech, Godongwana announced that manufacturers would be able to claim 150% of qualifying investment spending on electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. An additional R964m has been allocated over the medium term to support the transition to EVs.

While this news is a welcome move to foster the national adoption of EVs and ensure the SA motor industry remains globally competitive, key questions remain. In particular, it is not yet clear how the government plans to meet the increased demand for electricity that will be created by the mass charging of EVs in future.

It is incomprehensible for any government to promote the adoption of EVs when there is no clear support system in place for the development of a sustainable EV charging network, especially when no grid in the world was designed to sustain the vast demand that EVs charging will create.

Our projections predict that by 2034 the additional energy demand created by passenger EVs in SA will hit 10 terawatt-hours (TWh), and by 2050 this will have increased to just more than 60TWh.

This is a staggering increase, especially when one considers that the current Eskom power grid is not able supply enough electricity to meet the country’s current energy demand. That is why the solution of off-grid, solar-powered EV charging is the only viable option for SA to adopt EVs and migrate to green mobility.

The national department of trade, industry & competition’s EV white paper, published in December, has recognised the importance of ramping up SA’s charging infrastructure to meet this additional demand. It also recognises the problem of “on-grid” (mainly coal-powered) EV charging stations multiplying our carbon emissions at the same time as we have committed to a net-zero transition.

It states that “the transition to EVs will only truly be low-carbon once charging infrastructure has shifted materially to renewable energy sources”. Our own research shows that an EV charged by Eskom’s predominantly coal-fired grid emits 5.3 tonnes of carbon emissions in a year. This is even higher than a petrol vehicle, which on average emits 4.4 tonnes of carbon emissions in a year if driven over the same distance.

So while Godongwana’s plans to stimulate EV production and take-up must be welcomed, what is missing is a plan to stimulate the development of green charging infrastructure that is independent of Eskom’s mainly coal-powered network.

Zero Carbon Charge is building 120 charging facilities about 150km apart that are completely off-grid and powered by solar PV. The superchargers that will be installed at these facilities will be able to charge any EV at its maximum charging rate. The R1.8bn to develop this network will create local jobs in mostly rural areas and provide an additional revenue stream for farmers, who will earn 5% of the revenue generated from vehicle-charging on their land. A percentage of revenue will also be reinvested in local socioeconomic development initiatives.

However, key barriers are impeding the development of off-grid charging infrastructure, which is crucial for SA’s green EV revolution. These include the cumbersome processes and stringent requirements imposed by various regulatory bodies to get approval for developing charging stations, such as stringent land use and environmental application processes required by local and provincial authorities.

It is critical that a conducive environment is created not only for the production of EVs but also for investing in and building off-grid charging infrastructure in SA. We have therefore written to Godongwana, transport minister Sindisiwe Chikunga and trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel requesting engagements on the policy environment required for the mass development of cleaner EV energy sources across the country.

Once this infrastructure is in place, the government could then consider incentives encouraging EV drivers to use this network to charge their vehicles  for example, rebates for motorists who charge their vehicles with electricity sourced from renewable energy charging facilities.

After years of policy uncertainty, national government’s recent commitments to support SA’s EV transition are good news for vehicle manufacturers and consumers. However, for this shift to contribute towards our country’s net-zero goals and not place further strain on the national grid, the government must go a step further and create a policy and regulatory environment that will allow for the ramping up of renewable energy charging stations across the country.

Zero Carbon Charge will continue to look for opportunities to engage government on the critical importance of ensuring SA is prepared for the coming EV revolution and the opportunity for it to become a front-runner in green EV innovation.

In this regard, we look forward to participating in the department of transport’s upcoming stakeholder consultations regarding the implementation of the Green Transport Strategy, which is focused on the development of decarbonisation transport initiatives.

• Joubert is co-founder of Zero Carbon Charge.

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