Breaking the vicious circle

WHAT comes first, the chicken or the egg? This question is often used in Slovakia when describing the problems that the development of transport and transport infrastructure for electric vehicles currently faces. While there is little sense, especially from a commercial point of view, in building charging stations given the current near-absence of electric vehicles on Slovak roads, a continued lack of them will prevent more electric vehicles from being used.

Electric models are now ubiquitous at car shows around the world.Electric models are now ubiquitous at car shows around the world. (Source: AP/SITA)

WHAT comes first, the chicken or the egg? This question is often used in Slovakia when describing the problems that the development of transport and transport infrastructure for electric vehicles currently faces. While there is little sense, especially from a commercial point of view, in building charging stations given the current near-absence of electric vehicles on Slovak roads, a continued lack of them will prevent more electric vehicles from being used.

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

In some countries this dilemma is solved by state support, either for construction of charging stations or purchase of electric cars. Electrification of road transport – referred to in Slovakia as electro-mobility – also receives support from the European Commission. On January 24 it announced an ambitious package of measures to jump-start development in the field. The EC proposes a package of binding targets on member states for a minimum level of infrastructure for clean fuels such as electricity, hydrogen and natural gas, as well as common EU-wide standards for the equipment needed.

“Developing innovative and alternative fuels is an obvious way to make Europe’s economy more resource efficient, to reduce our overdependence on oil and develop a transport industry which is ready to respond to the demands of the 21st century,” Siim Kallas, the European commissioner for transport, said, as quoted in an EC press release. “Between them, China and the US plan to have more than 6 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. This is a major opportunity for Europe to establish a strong position in a fast-growing global market.”

Under the EC plan a minimum number of recharging points, using a common plug, will be required in each member state. The aim is to put in place a critical mass of charging points so that companies will mass-produce cars at reasonable prices. For Slovakia the proposed target of publicly accessible infrastructure by 2020 is 4,000 points, making up 10 percent of the total number of recharging points.

Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK are currently leading the field, with hundreds of charging points already installed. In Slovakia the number of points designed for recharging electric vehicles – even though an ‘ordinary’ plug can be used for this purpose – does not exceed 20. Based on data from the Economy Ministry there is one public fast charging station, located at a petrol station in Bratislava’s Petržalka district, five public stations with normal-speed recharging (in Bratislava, Nitra, Poprad and Košice) and about 10 official private charging stations. With regards to electric vehicles, 26 personal electric cars and seven electric utility vehicles have been registered.

“Slovakia lags behind developed countries in the building of infrastructure and in the electrification of its roads, which is certainly a pity,” Peter Badík, director of the Slovak Electric Vehicle Association (SEVA), told The Slovak Spectator. “Slovakia has great prospects in electro-mobility and thus it should develop in this direction too.”

He is optimistic about the future of electro-mobility in Slovakia, believing that feasible business models and indirect support, rather than hefty state subsidies, should propel it. He would like to see a positive attitude and an openness to cooperate on the part of the state as well as local administrations.

“Firstly, it is necessary to look for a reasonable business model,” said Badík. “From the side of the state it is of key importance to create a positive attitude or mood towards electro-mobility; to say that this is a thing that can bring us innovation and employment.”

According to Badík, there are already some initiatives from the state. He referred to the plan of the Economy Ministry to adopt a strategy for development of public electro-mobility in Slovakia and declare an interest in electro-mobility as one of the main priorities for the immediate future. The ministry is already working on this strategy together with its partners, including SEVA, electricity distributors and others.

The Economy Ministry told The Slovak Spectator that the aim of the strategy is to identify individual opportunities and to recommend optimal measures on the part of state institutions with the aim of developing and supporting electro-mobility from the viewpoint of its implementation and operation of a complex and integrated system for real usage of electric cars.

According to Pavol Kajánek, the division director of the research and development department at the independent Transport Research Institute, the strategy, which should be elaborated by the end of 2013, should provide answers to most questions related to electro-mobility in Slovakia.

The institute takes a positive view of initiatives supporting the development of electro-mobility because it is an alternative to fossil fuels and contributes to the reduction of the negative influence of transport on the environment.

“Electro-mobility should be perceived as a complex; it is not only charging stations,” Kajánek told The Slovak Spectator, adding that it includes equipment, the environment, the whole charging infrastructure including IT and education, and that it is necessary to cover the whole life-cycle of vehicles and charging stations. “Thus the price of electricity, electric cars and their operation, regulation and support of electro-mobility and technological development [batteries in particular remain a problem] can be included among the fundamental factors affecting the development of the charging infrastructure.”

According to electricity distributor Východoslovenská Energetika (VSE), which operates four public charging stations in Slovakia, more extensive development of electro-mobility in Slovakia can begin when the price of electric cars decreases to a level at which their purchase is economically sensible.

Stredoslovenská Energetika (SSE), another electricity distributor, is closely monitoring developments in Slovakia and agrees that the high price of electric cars, their low popularity among drivers due to their low mileage per charge and, the scant or in some place non-existent, network of charging stations, is preventing electro-mobility from expanding here.

“Definitely, direct or indirect support for the purchase of electric cars, support for R&D in this field, as well as provision of more information about electro-mobility to make it more popular would certainly help it to develop,” SSE spokesperson Jana Bolibruchová told The Slovak Spectator.

Kajánek noted that the Economy Ministry is interested in creating a proper framework for the sector.

“Apparently the development in the sector of electric cars will be gradual and evolutionary, which means bigger penetration of hybrid cars via the launch of electric vehicles in urban mobility up to full usage of electric cars,” said Kajánek, who foresees that the support provided, the strength of producers or alliances, and the distribution network as well as technological progress will in the end decide which concept succeeds.

Badík believes that an environment favourable to the development of electro-mobility can be created by indirect means like reduced taxes and reduced car-registration fees. From the viewpoint of constructing infrastructure, he says there should be partnerships with municipalities and regional administrations in order that they have electro-mobility in mind when planning the development of transport and infrastructure. He stressed the need to identify synergies and not focus on immediately generating money from electro-mobility.

Badík pointed out that the EC proposal is more about creation of the right environment and creation of support mechanisms, and that EU funds can be used for these purposes too.

He said he does not see the target of 4,000 publicly accessible charging points in Slovakia by 2020 as being too high, even though it may look that way.

“First, it is necessary to say that that this figure is not an expert estimate and that it was set only on the basis of development in other markets,” said Badík. He explained that the basic and simplified scheme for a functional market is to have roughly one charging station per one electric vehicle, and that, to begin with, the number of charging points must actually be higher. In Slovakia about 60,000 to 70,000 new passenger cars are sold each year, and there are about 1.8 million cars in total. This means that by 2020 almost 500,000 new passenger cars will be sold, of which 4,000 represents less than one 1 percent. As a result, he sees the target of 4,000 charging points by 2020 as being achievable.

The Transport Research Institute regards the EC initiative positively. With regards to the targets for Slovakia, Kajánek stressed that this is still only a draft directive and that only time will show whether expectations are realistic or over-ambitious, because currently electro-mobility is only at its very beginning and its size in two decades cannot yet be predicted.

VSE stressed that from the available information it is not clear how the EC plans will be financed.
“If the EC does not assume usage of public funds, it is necessary to stress that any investments from private resources will require a return on investment,” VSE spokesperson Andrea Danihelová told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the target of 4,000 charging stations is ambitious and will be difficult to achieve without public funds. She noted that the construction of bridges, highways and railways is financed from public funds.

VSE operates four public charging stations – in Bratislava, Nitra, Poprad and Košice – and built them knowing that they would not be heavily used because of the limited number of electric cars on Slovak roads.

“We are convinced that this is a step in the right direction, by which we have broken the vicious circle,” said Danihelová. “Construction of further charging stations will depend on the interest of the public, or partners who should be the natural initiators of the development of the infrastructure. These are towns, shopping centres or car sellers.”

SSE has prepared a strategy for building a network of charging stations in the region in which it operates, using experience from its parent company, the French power firm EDF.

“We have already selected some localities suitable for building charging stations,” Bolibruchová said, adding that SSE is communicating with producers of charging stations, following trends elsewhere in the world and drawing inspiration from colleagues in France.

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