What can the world learn from Norway as an EV superpower?

27 Jan 2020

Image: © Lukas/Stock.adobe.com

Before Ireland tries to race towards an EV future, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from a nation that is breaking all sorts of clean transport records.

It has become almost cliché to associate the Nordics with a standard of living most of the world can only aspire to. In the last few months, we looked at how Denmark – spurred on by an oil crisis in the late 1970s – decided it wasn’t going to be reliant on foreign fuel imports and established itself as the poster child of renewable energy.

Also held in a similar high regard is Norway, a nation that has become a world leader in one specific clean technology: electric vehicles (EVs). Yet, unlike Denmark, Norway has access to the largest oil supply in western Europe, and is one the biggest exporters in the world, making this success story all the more impressive.

While it’s estimated that China has the most EVs on the planet as it rushes to clean up its reputation as a massive global polluter, Norway holds the record for the largest market penetration per capita in the world.

According to the Norwegian Road Federation, last year battery EVs made up almost 60pc of all new car sales in Norway, up from 31pc in 2018. It’s no surprise that Tesla has been pushing sales hard in the country, selling more new cars last year than petrol and diesel cars combined.

By comparison, figures from 2019 released by DoneDeal.ie for Ireland revealed that just under 15,000 new electric and hybrid cars were sold. Of that number, only around 3,400 were full EVs. This is just 3pc of the total number of new cars sold for the year, which makes the Government’s aim to have 1m EVs on Irish roads seem all the more like a fantasy.

A red Tesla Model S and BMW i3 at a charging station on an Oslo street.

A Tesla Model S and a BMW i3 charging on a street in Oslo. Image: © scharfsinn86/Stock.adobe.com

An offer that’s hard to refuse

So why has Norway excelled while Ireland coasts into inaction? In essence, the Norwegian government has made its citizens offers – or in this case, incentives – that many can hardly refuse.

Erik Figenbaum, chief research engineer at the Institute of Transport Economics in Norway told Siliconrepublic.com it was borne from a “lot of experimentation in niche markets” as far back as 1990. In that year, the country was one of the first to introduce a registration tax exemption for EVs.

Not only that, but many of the incentives we hear proposed today in Ireland to get more EVs on the road were introduced years ago in Norway, including exemption from toll fees at bridges and free public parking in select locations.

This was followed in 2001 with the Norwegian government removing a 25pc sales tax on new EVs and then, four years later, allowing EVs to use bus lanes any time of the day. In fact, Norway’s rapid adoption of EVs has resulted in a situation where the government is already in the process of scaling back these incentives because they’ve already done what they intended to achieve: mass adoption.

Too much of a good thing

VAT exemption will be replaced at the end of this year with a subsidy that would get smaller over time, depending on market trends. Even the rule to allow cars in bus lanes has been delegated to local authorities after complaints that EVs were clogging up bus lanes.

Many of these incentives, and more, are set to expire by 2021, just before the country introduces a total ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars in 2025 – five years earlier than many other nations in Europe that have proposed similar bans.

For Figenbaum, despite the government push, it was a bottom-up approach that saw the policies come to pass.

“The pressure has come from below to force the government to introduce incentives,” he said.

“Then, the incentives were kept in place with a huge focus on climate change, then it suddenly because a very interesting proposition for politicians to continue to drive the introduce of EVs.”

Blue tram blurred as it travels through an Oslo street with the sun shining in the background.

An Oslo street. Image: © ver0nicka/Stock.adobe.com

Learning from mistakes

However, if Ireland were to actually hit the 1m EV mark by 2030 – as unlikely as that is – we could stand to learn a thing or two from Norway not just on what to do, but what not to do.

With almost 250,000 EVs on Norwegian roads, the national charging infrastructure is struggling to keep the pace. The results of a survey released last July found that while 85pc of drivers in the country use fast chargers, as many as 75pc said they are often waiting in queues to charge.

There are approximately 2,000 fast chargers in the country, yet around 1,200 more need to be built each year to meet growing demand, according to the Norwegian Electric Car Association. By comparison, one plan the Irish Government announced last year promised that just 50 would be initially installed.

But for Figenbaum, one of the biggest issues is not public charging, but having a standard approach to home charging and shared spaces.

A blue parking sign with a charging point indicator beneath with an apartment block in the background.

Image: © Predrag Jankovic/Stock.adobe.com

“It varies a lot locally [in Norway], so it depends on how easy it is to install,” he said. “If it’s costly [to install in an apartment complex], the question is: can you tip that cost on to all the people who live in the complex? It involves a lot of discussions and debates in housing communities. It is a very difficult issue.

“But we are trying to support it with programmes and there’s also a law that says the board of these housing cooperatives can’t say that you can’t charge there. They have to investigate and see how it can be done and how much it will cost.”

Perhaps, Figenbaum added, it would be worth Ireland’s time to actually implement some of the incentives Norway is already trying to wean itself off, such as toll bridge fee reductions and being able to drive in bus lanes.

“You can say that [Norway’s] targets are very ambitious and driven from the [government],” he said.

“But it’s also enabled by all this niche experimentation encouraged by the consumer. This is something that could help in Ireland, to get more niche incentives and just get the market going.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic