It’s seven degrees below freezing, there’s a blizzard blowing, and the yellow snow ploughs with their flashing orange lights are hardly making a difference on Norway’s E16 — the main road between Oslo and Bergen on this dark night in mid-March.
What little traffic there is moves nowhere fast, the more adventurous drivers will stay behind the ploughs and the cleared paths they cut in the snowy and icy road. But the conditions are not conducive for the uncourageous — or those running low on fuel or power.
The bright lights of the Circle K petrol station in Gulsvik are a welcoming beacon for the motorists who brave the conditions, offering fuel, coffee and the ubiquitous hot dogs served in lefse — flat potato bread wraps that look just like Mexican tortillas or chapatis.
In the worsening late-evening storm, a row of eight red Tesla charging stations are partially in use. Here in Norway, one new car in three sold in 2018 was fully electric. For a nation that is fully self-sufficient in petro resources, that’s a stunning level of uptake. By 2025, the Norwegian government plans that every new car sold here in this nation of 5.26 million people will be fully electric. Across the European Economic Area — the customs zone that includes the European Union along with Iceland and Lichtenstein, Norway leads the way with the highest concentration of electric cars, expected to be close to 40 per cent by the end of the year. In the United Kingdom, by comparison, just 2 per cent of cars are fully electric.
58%of all car sales in March in the country were electric vehicles
Henning cradles a paper cup of coffee and watches the blowing snow through squinting eyes and the LED lights of the Circle K forecourt. “They say we are to get a half metre [of snow] overnight,” he says.
He’s a property developer from the northern suburbs of Oslo and imports factory-assembled wooden homes from Lithuania that meet all of Norway’s strict building and environmental rules. With traditional home building costs coming in at nearly €2,000 (Dh8,300) per square metre in Norway, his imported kit homes knock about a third off that price — and business is booming. He keeps an eye on the weather, and the other on the charging levels for his Tesla X that is hooked up to one of those charging points.
Like another 147,928 Norwegians, Henning, 54, took delivery of his electric vehicle last year. “I’ve had it since August,” he tells the Weekend Review. “The government basically allowed me to buy the car tax free. It’s cheap to run, doesn’t harm the environment and I can drive it in bus lanes in Oslo.”
Trouble is, so can everyone else who drives an electric vehicle. “It’s getting to the point now where bus lanes don’t work for buses because there’s so many EVs [electric vehicles] on the road.”
For motorists who do still drive cars burning petrol, a litre will set them back about €1.64 — and they must also pay higher annual road taxes and registration costs. And driving the surge to electric vehicles are exemptions on toll fees on Norway’s highways and free parking in most car parks.
But there is a catch. With the mercury falling by the hour this winter night, the colder weather means batteries in the new electric cars don’t perform at optimum levels — which means more frequent stops to charge the cars.
“I think of my car as being like a mobile phone,” Henning says. “You never want your phone to run out of juice. It’s the same way of thinking with your car. You plug it in at every opportunity.”
He says that in the non-winter months, he can travel about 350 km on a full charge. In winter, with cold affecting the batteries’ performance, that range drops to about 200 km. And that means that making the drive between Oslo to Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city nearly 570 km away entails including at least two, more likely three charging stops. Given Norway’s mountainous interior and narrow, winding roads in difficult winter conditions, the drive can take six hours. All in the, charging stops for lower-performing winter batteries, and that journey can take the best part of 10 hours.
“It’s something that is making us Norwegians stop and slow down a little,” Henning says. “You have to stop for a charge, have a coffee, catch up on emails. That’s not a bad thing, but the upside is that the environment is a winner.”
Right now, Norway ranks as the eighth-largest producer of oil globally and ninth in terms of natural gas production. With so much petro-energy to hand, the deliberate movement towards electric vehicles seems counterintuitive to outside observers but environmental concerns and lowering its carbon footprint are taken very seriously by the Norwegian government and its citizens alike. Roughly half of Norway’s exports are energy related. What’s more, the revenues generated from the petro-energy sector means the Norwegian government can afford to waive a 25 per cent sales tax on the purchase of new electric vehicles and offer other subsidies and incentives such as free parking and free charging points as well.
Norway illustrates that with incentives that eliminate the price advantage of conventional gas-burning vehicles, many people will go for the electric option. “It works, absolutely,” Martin Norman of Greenpeace Norway, who has driven an EV since 2004, told The Guardian recently. “It’s clearly feasible, especially in urban areas. We’ve found that the range of EVs is enough for most of what people need.”
Many European experts and industry representatives see the Norwegian model — minus the whopping subsidies — as a sign of where European electromobility is heading. Magdalena Jozwicka of the European Environment Agency, a Copenhagen-based EU body, says the EU looks to non-EU member Norway for inspiration. Even though it’s highly subsidised, e-mobility in Norway has caught fire on account of its own virtues, she says, noting its contribution to air quality, it’s quiet, and the many perks that e-cars enjoy.
“People aren’t just using them as hobby cars for city shopping anymore,” she says. “They’re switching to full e-mobility because it’s possible now.”
10,732new passenger cars registered last month had zero emissions
Right now, according to Innovation Norway, 99 per cent of the nation’s electricity needs comes from renewable sources — from hydro-electric plants that harness the power of water stored in large dams and waterfalls in its mountainous interior, from geo-thermal sources harness heat from just below the earth’s surface, from wind turbines and from solar sources, which is surprising given that northern regions of the nation are in winter’s darkness for two months.
Summer rainfall is monitored carefully — helping to fill up the dams that store the water to power hydro-electric plants. And the melting snow also provides water for those dams.
In Europe, transportation is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. And while Europe’s industrial emissions have fallen by 38 per cent since 1990, those in the transportation sector — including aviation — have increased by 9 per cent.
Earlier this year, Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment said that all airlines operating in the country must use more environmentally friendly jet fuel mixed with biofuel from 2020.
As part of Norway’s push to cut greenhouse gas emissions the aviation fuel industry must mix 0.5 per cent advanced biofuel into jet fuel from 2020 onwards, a move which will force airlines to use the more costly fuel.
“The government’s goal is that by 2030, 30 per cent of the airline fuel will be sustainable with a good climate effect,” the ministry said.
This corresponds to around 6 million litres of what is also known as second-generation biofuels, a product of waste and leftovers, and cannot be based on palm oil, Climate and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen said.
Biofuels for aviation cost around two or three times more than regular jet fuel, according to a report by Norway’s environmental agency, the civil aviation authority and state-owned operator Avinor. However, as there is no functioning market for biofuels in aviation, the real prices are uncertain, Elvestuen said.
But there’s also an electric revolution taking place when it comes to Norway’s ferry fleets. With more than a thousand fjords cutting deep into the nation’s 2,000km-long coastline. More than 130 ferry routes operate year-round, providing a vital transport link. And since 2015, Norway has started to introduce electric ferries. Ampere was the first to go into commercial operation in 2015. Because they have relatively short trips — the Ampere covers a six-km route between the villages of Lavik and Oppedal — she is charged when docked quayside overnight using the power infrastructure already in place. The Ampere, fully battered powered, is 80-metres long, can carry 350 passengers, 120 cars and eight lorries, and has zero emissions. A sister ship went into service in 2017. And because the vessels are built using aluminium rather than steel used on similar ships, they are half the weight of comparable vessels, making them more efficient for the battery system.
Norway also has the world’s fourth-largest maritime fleet made up of nearly 50,000 tankers freighters and carriers. Traditionally, these vessels are powered by huge diesel engines that burn low-quality fuel and discharge pollutants across the world’s sea lanes. Now, the nation’s shipping industry is looking at converting those vessels to liquefied natural gas — where the only emission is water.
Back at the Circle K in Gulsvik, Henning’s Tesla is charged and he’s ready to hit the road once more for the next stretch to Bergen.
“There is one other drawback,” he says. “When the back doors on the car are opened” — they are wing doors that open upwards unlike conventional vehicle doors that open outwards — “too much cold air comes in.”
With the blizzard blowing, there’s not much can be done about that.
–With inputs from agencies
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.