The electric vehicle transition

The future of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) is speeding ahead and, before too long, petrol and diesel vehicles may seem as ancient as donkeys and carts.

The European Commission has ordered that, from 2025, all new motor vehicles must be electrically operated. A major objective is to help environmental sustainability by reducing CO2 emissions from internal combustion engines.

To accelerate the transition, governments are offering tax incentives on the price of vehicles and charging costs, as well as increasing the number of charging stations.

The number of electric vehicles produced in Europe has risen dramatically from three-quarters of a million in 2019. Germany is ahead of the race with 1.3 million EVs on its roads in 2021. It’s followed in the fast lane, one way or another, by the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Among the millions expected to come on to the market this year will be 50 new models of various types. The most popular car so far is said to be the Tesla Model Y.

In Portugal, thousands of euros are on offer as an incentive to each individual or company purchasing single or multiple vehicles. The money is coming from a special EU fund. It seems to be working well.

In the first two months of this year, there was an increase of nearly 140% in new electric cars registered (total 4,850) compared to the number registered in January and February last year.

In the Algarve, Ian Fitzpatrick, the well-known ceramic artist, has happily upgraded to a practical multi-purpose EV, a Citroën e-Berlingo, which is basically a van with extra seats.

“My previous car was 21 years old and was becoming unreliable, and so I needed to replace it. As I have a solar panel system at home, I liked the idea of doing away with harmful fossil fuels and driving around on the sunshine!”

EVs are considerably more expensive to buy than conventional vehicles, but running costs are a lot cheaper, he explained. “My solar panels produce more electricity than we need for our house and car. If you have a smart charger, you can set it in ‘ecomode’ to only take power from the panels and not the grid. But even if you were charging from the grid, as many urban dwellers would have to do, it is considerably cheaper per kilometre than petrol.”

Ian added: “Being automatic, it is easier to drive. Also, over the life of the car, repair and maintenance costs should be less as EVs have far fewer moving parts that can deteriorate or malfunction.”

Extra planning is necessary for long trips, although more charging stations are being introduced all over the country all the time. Driving at relatively high speed on motorways uses more battery power per kilometre than local journeys.

As an indication of how vehicles are changing across the world, by the middle of last year China had 10 million EV units representing 46% of the global total. The stock includes everything from cars and light commercial vehicles to heavy trucks and buses.

In the United States, as in Portugal but on a vaster scale, the federal government has this year set aside billions of dollars to encourage customers and manufacturers to “hitch a ride”, as one commentator put it.

The environmental benefits of this transport transition are said to be, in the worst-case scenario, that an electric car with a battery produced in China and driven in Poland emits 37% less CO2 than a petrol car. In the best-case scenario, an electric car with a battery produced in Sweden and driven in Sweden emits 83% less CO2 than petrol.

It is expected that electric cars bought in 2030 will reduce CO2 emissions fourfold because the EU grid will rely much more on renewables than fossil fuels.

The downside to all this, however, is that EVs use lithium-ion batteries. Much more efficient ways have yet to be found to recycle and discard ever-increasing quantities of lithium-ion batteries.

According to a recent report: “The need for battery recycling in Europe will demand a fundamental shift from today’s position, where just a very small percentage of lithium-ion battery recycling occurs, and only a limited volume of materials is recovered for reuse.”


Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog:

Portugal Resident