Charging up... Electric cars may finally have convinced more buyers to opt for them. They will only need to look to the smog-free skies if they needed more convincing. Image Credit: Reuters

It may seem hard to consider right now - but there is one silver lining to the lockdowns implemented across much of the world. There’s been a visible improvement in the air quality throughout our cities.

Pictures shared on social media show clear skies and cities free of smog for the first time in decades. Without tens of thousands of commuter journeys made by car, bus or taxi, pollution levels have dropped in urban centres. According to testing conducted by the European Environment Agency (EEA), some cities have seen concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) fall by over 50 per cent in the space of one week.

No one can say with any certainty when the pandemic will slow down enough - but shouldn’t we all be thinking about how this change in air quality could be made permanent? A major part of achieving the goal of reduced pollution in our cities is already available in the form of more widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

As good as zero emission

The emissions from an electric vehicle are around three times lower than a conventional car, including those from power stations that create the electricity to charge the car. As more countries switch to cleaner electricity generation, emissions from EVs will decrease even further. The benefits of replacing dense concentrations of petrol-fuelled vehicles in our cities with greener EVs are obvious.

There are an increasing number of options for anyone who wants to buy an electric car. Most major automobile manufacturers offer their own EVs; and batteries are getting better every year, enabling longer range per charge, and a shorter time to charge. Even so, uptake has been slow in the Middle East, and few would consider an EV as a feasible option for their next car.

So the question is – what will it take to make the switch to electric vehicles a reality?

Teething issues can be overcome

The main challenge at the moment facing anyone who wants to buy an EV is the charging infrastructure. There are simply not that many charging stations available. To date DEWA has done an admirable job of installing 240 stations in different areas of Dubai, including petrol stations, government offices and some residential complexes.

In other cities in the region, however, there has been nowhere near as much progress. The Middle East lags behind Europe by as much as ten years in the rollout of charging infrastructure.

Technology is there

The good news is that much of the technology to provide charging infrastructure already exists – in fact the technology is mature and stable. What’s also important is the cost – the common perception is that electric vehicles are more expensive than their conventional petrol-powered alternatives. This may have been true a couple of years back, but it isn’t the case anymore.

According to the World Economic Forum, the cost of battery storage will decrease from $1,000 per kilowatt hour in 2010 to an expected $200 kWh by 2020. Running costs are also much lower, and can save owners thousands of dollars a year through savings on fuel and maintenance.

A makeover time

But we’re not just talking cars here. There’s infrastructure to consider (think electric fuel pumps), both on the road as well as at home. And this shift will offer the economy a welcome boost.

For example, traditional gas stations will add new services to address the needs of electrification transportation. Oil & Gas companies will add to their retail revenue streams by servicing these new waves of customers.

Electric companies will experience new ways of selling electricity to consumers. They’ll also benefit from the energy stored in our vehicles, as consumers will be able to sell power back into the grid, to address power supply and demand constraints during peak power consumption hours.

Incubate new ventures

New firms will be created that will offer innovative EV network payment management, customer care, and booking services solutions. Equipment manufacturers will provide both fast charging solutions along highways and smart charging infrastructures to help optimize safety and energy efficiency while reducing electrical energy costs.

Charging point operators will help run the networks of charging stations, and provide maintenance physically and remotely.

Expand the connections

Each of these stakeholders will contribute in their own way to evolve an integrated system that provides not just a cleaner environment, but also economic benefits.

For this to happen, we need partnerships, collaboration and co-ordination across all stakeholders – government, utilities, real estate developers and technology providers like Schneider Electric – to really make EVs feasible for the Middle East.

Developers and utilities will need to cooperate to ensure that new projects are built with adequate capacity for mass usage of chargers. We will require standardization, but also free markets to ensure there is competition to drive the business forward. It will require awareness and education, as well as legislation, to create fair, open and competitive ecosystems.

Electric vehicles at the moment are in a similar position to solar power a few years ago – this is potentially a whole new industry, but it needs alignment and incentives to kick start it, and a firm lead from government to create a sustainable market for the future.

As we can see from our quiet, but newly clean cities, the opportunity for widespread adoption of electric vehicles is not just a commercial opportunity, but an opportunity for the planet.

- Sarang Jape is Key Account Manager - Mobility Segment, Power Systems Division, Energy Management Business, Schneider Electric.