We are, it seems, in the middle of a huge transition in our daily transportation, to “greener cleaner” alternatives. Figures coming in show a doubling of purchases of electric cars (EVs) in Europe from 2020 to 2021, reaching about eight per cent of the total of new car purchases, with another eight per cent plug-in hybrid cars. EU has decided to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035, Britain already by 2030. Norway, where I am sitting, does not (contrary to popular belief) have any similar ban, but the government has an aim of voluntary adoption of zero-emission cars only by 2025, four years from now. At the moment, we are at about 60 per cent full electric, and another 25 per cent plug ins, like in Europe these figures are just going up. Now, I am aware that Norwegians can come over as rather smug about this - ha, ha, we can afford it with our oil. My intention is however to try to see this as a living experiment: Europe is clearly going to catch up by the end of the decade, and in the meantime, the Norway example can be seen as a lab experiment of what this will entail, at least in Europe.
|Just another car|
Or maybe not? There is one type of car that still holds out - plug-in hybrids. As mentioned, they still make up about a quarter to a third of new sales in Norway, and are even increasing, and in our neighbouring Sweden the vast majority of “plug-in cars” are plug-in hybrids, not full-electric. Recent reports in French media also stress how the government and car manufacturers seem to push plug-in hybrids as the way forward to electrification, giving them incentives and preferences for public sector purchases. This raises the issue: Is this a good thing or a bad thing for the cause of emission reduction and “greener cleaner”. A viable alternative, a transition stage, or simply a red herring to preserve petrol cars in a new form?
Hybrids and hybrids, a variable term
“Hybrid” is unfortunately a very confusing term, as it is used in different and often contradictory ways. The term “hybrid” simply means that the car has both some form of petrol engine and some form of electric motor (in English “engine” is used for a combustion system, “motor” the electric one. Most hybrids use petrol, diesel hybrids exist but are rare). Sometimes "hybrid" is used in opposition to "plug-ins", so that it means a "non-chargeable" hybrid car only, at other times both types are lumped together as "hybrids" (and I have even seen it used for plug-ins only, so that we have "hybrids and non-chargeable hybrids"). To clear it up, we should distinguish according to how the relation between the (petrol) engine and the (electric) motor is:
In a full hybrid both the engine and motor are independently capable of driving the car. Thus, one could expect them to take turns; the engine charges the battery while it drives the car, and then leaves the propulsion over to the electric motor when that has enough juice. However, the normal situation is that the two work in unison to drive the car forward. A typical case is a Prius, there the car will start up in electric mode until it reaches the low speed of 15 km/hour, then the engine kicks in, and takes over more and more as speed increases. That allows the car to have a very small battery - it is, on its own, only able to drive the car about 2 km - which saves valuable weight and improves economy.
In a mild hybrid, the electric motor is smaller and is not able to drive the car on its own, so the petrol engine must run all the time; the electric motor only adds some extra power when needed, in particular when accelerating. Sometimes the term “mild hybrid” is used for both of these types, which is thus incorrect, but as we can see the difference between them is only one of degree, as both engine and motor are normally active in both cases.
The Prius and other hybrids were hailed as a major step to cleaner driving when it was introduced some twenty years ago, and its producer Toyota are still selling this point as a “self-charging hybrid”, where the driver does not have to worry about the propulsion, he simply uses less petrol than otherwise. The driver cannot influence the distribution engine/motor power, that is all done automatically. However, many - particularly in Europe, where we drive smaller cars - dispute the benefits of this type of hybrid. They point out that an efficient diesel engine can show a similar fuel efficiency, with diesel both being cheaper and emitting less CO2 than the petrol used by the hybrid. Both will vary between 4-5 l/100 km (50 mpg).
If we consider the non-chargeable full hybrid as mainly a petrol car with a twist, there remains the plug-in hybrid, the PHEV [Plug-In Hybrid Electrical Vehicle]. That is then main alternative in Norway as well as in Europe to the full electric car. As the name indicates, it is simply a (full) hybrid with a plug - the user can charge the battery from the mains, unlike the closed system of the non-chargeable, but it opens up for a new set of issues.
Two reports that came out last year questioned this premise, and warned against considering PHEVs as a green alternative. One was usage. Unlike the non-chargeable, the greenness of the PHEV depends on the user. He or she can select whether to drive in “full-electric mode” or “hybrid mode”, and must of course charge up the battery regularly, preferably daily. What the report showed was that a large percentage of PHEV owners in Europe did not do that. This is particularly the case when companies in danger of paying CO2 fines, invest in PHEVs as company cars, with no further support to their drivers: On paper their emissions go down, but as long as the company pays for the petrol, the users will simply drive them as heavy and inefficient petrol cars. With higher emissions, because of the increased weight of the fairly large, but then pointless battery. Thus, in Germany, the report shows, a PHEV is driven in electric mode only 18 per cent of the time.
Further, another report showed that even when driven in “electric” mode, the engine can still be active, without the user’s awareness. This can happen when accelerating sharply, but also in cold weather. One producer, Kia, acknowledged this to the researchers, if the cabin temperature drops below 14 centigrade, the engine will kick in to assist the heating system. This is of course often the case in northerly climates. It is evidently done to ensure that the advertised battery range is kept. In total, the reports claim, the PHEV will in the real world have emissions similar to those of the non-chargeable hybrids, or even smaller diesel and petrol cars.
Full-electric cars and charging: What do we need, and what do we have?
So, that would leave the full-electric car as the only clear alternative, if we accept those arguments. But we know the problem with full-electric cars: They have a limited range. More than enough for your daily drive, but if you are taking a longer trip, you need to visit a fast charger or similar on the way. Hence “range anxiety”. Now, newer EVs have longer range, and they charge faster than before. The newest brands can fill up enough for 400 kms or so in twenty minutes. They are few yet, but we must expect both car manufacturers and chargers to hasten to compete with this speed. New charging stations are also being set up all the time, but not fast enough, as the number of EVs rise even faster.
|Local charging station|
A survey of Western Norway
Also, of course, they are far fewer than petrol stations. And that is the issue I wanted to look at, again using Norway and my own region of Western Norway as a case. My primary question was, concerning range: How far apart are the charging stations? The advice normally given to EV drivers is twofold: (1) Charge when you can, not when you must [so that you are not flat with too long distance to the nearest charger], and (2) Do not charge until your battery is at 10-20 per cent of full charge, as that gives the fastest charging time (and not above 80%, as that is very slow!). Those are of course contradictory, one says to charge often, the other to wait. So, some sort of awareness of how far you can drive before you hit the 10 per cent mark, and whether there will be a charger there, is essential. Hence the question: How far is that?
That of course depends on your car, 10% of 100 km and 500 km are very different. But let us assume you have a medium size family car, which today will have a “range” of about 300 km. If you should charge not above 80 per cent, and not below 10 per cent, that gives a maximum “stage” between charging of about 200 km, or some three hours of driving. That is quite generous, chargers are clearly more frequent than that. But, unfortunately, we are still in the situation that some chargers may be out of order, and in the holiday season or in weekends, queues may build up, as the number of chargers are sill inadequate. So you would probably want a higher frequency of chargers than the absolute minimum (and many older cars have much smaller range than 300 km).
The Norwegian EV owner’s association has promoted two goals for an acceptable charging network:
- There should not be more than 50 km between fast chargers.
- On main arteries, there should for every 150 km distance be a plaza with at least 50 chargers.
How far are we now from this aim? To answer that, I spent some time looking around in my region, Western Norway, on the Chargefinder app, to see how many charger we actually have there and how far apart they are. I couldn’t bother to go outside the West Coast, but looked at the area from Nordmøre in the north to Kristiansand in the south, coast to mountains (pop. 1,3 mill., ca. 110,000 EVs, 980 km north-south). As of today, late July 2021, I found a total of 160 fast charging locations with 867 chargers (“pumps”. I only counted the most common CCS chargers, but with two or three exceptions all locations also had the alternative Chademo contact).
|The E39 artery|
So, what was the result, how far apart are these chargers? Where are we in relation to the goals set up by the EV owner’s group?
To my great surprise, the first criterion is actually now filled in our part of Norway. Looking at both major arteries (“Europaveg” and “riksveg”), and the smaller local “fylkesveg”, the longest distance I could find between two charges was 73 km, and the few stages of more than 60 km between (or to) locations were into remote valleys or across mountains. Evidently, on the major arteries like the E39 north-south, the frequency is even greater, the average between two “locations” (i.e. villages or towns with chargers) is 24 km. For regional roads and sideroads, that figure is higher, but mostly in the region between 30 and 45 km, well below the 50 km aim.
However, that is unfortunately not the full story. Very many of these locations are small, with only one or two chargers at the location. That is of course fine if they work and are unoccupied. But with only two stalls, unfortunately, that may not be the case. With four chargers, your chances are a bit higher. Of the 160, only 73 were of the four plus type, and the distance between them increases. Not so much on the main arteries, there the maximum distance increases only to about 70 km, with an exception or two, but off the main roads, we can often find 100 km or more between two four+ locations. Surprisingly, our two most famous touristy fjords, Sognefjorden and Hardangerfjorden are only served by small one- or two-charger locations, and they are not particularly close to each other either.
Still this is a surprisingly positive result. It is often claimed that EVs are not suited to countryside because the charging network is too weak, but at least for Norway-average Western Norway this is quite simply not true. If 50-60 km is the minimum; you can reach a charging station even from the farthest hamlet on the off-shore islands to the deepest inlet of the fjords within that distance.
|Sorry - California, not Western Norway|
The second aim is more idealistic. No such plaza with 50 chargers exists. The only way we can get such numbers is to add up all the chargers in the largest cities - or actually only one city, Bergen with 83 by my count (and mostly in the suburbs); Stavanger has 43 and its twin city Sandnes 37. But if we lower that demand to a more realistic 10+ chargers in one village or town, we are better served within the 150 km range, at least on the two major arteries, E39 north-south and E16/RV7 east-west. There are a couple of misses (Førde, at seven, should then be upped to ten), but otherwise they both fit the criterion. Some other popular routes (RV15 Strynefjell, E134, RV5) do not.
The result of this survey would then be that while we certainly do need more chargers, the “charging strategy” should not be so much to increase the number of locations where chargers are set up - that is probably adequate for the time being, certainly so in the countryside. Instead, the focus should be on expanding those stations that we have, so that instead of one or two chargers, each station should have “redundancy”, where there now are one and two chargers, there should be at least four, and where there are four there should be eight or more. Thus, it would not matter so much if a single charger or two was temporarily off-line (although that is of course also something companies should clean up), and queues would not build up so quickly, because when a driver then sees a queue, she can rely on there being a working station 40-50 km down the road and drive on there. Today, she would probably get in line rather than drive 50 km to the small station and find that it is off-line. It is a matter of trust, that you can rely on finding a working charger where the map tells you there should be one (some chargers give this information on-line, so an app can tell you, but most of the smaller and older charger do not provide any status info.). If not, the “charge when you can” philosophy will tell you that where there is a line, there is a working charger, so just get into the line (a bit like the queues in the old Soviet Union: if there is a line, there must be something worthwhile at the end, so if you see one, you get into it.).
In other words, the advice “charge when you can” should be made obsolete and replaced with “I can charge whenever I want to - within 50 km / 15-20 per cent on the charge-o-meter”. As I said, the charging network is expanding rapidly, about 1,000 new chargers are set up nation-wide annually, I understand, and many are rapidly building out faster chargers of 150 kW rather than the older 50 kW. With the new 800V models, we will surely see chargers of this capacity (350+ kW) also appearing. Which is very good, but the companies should add these to the existing chargers, rather than replacing them, as all cars can also charge on less powerful chargers if the rapid chargers are occupied. And, of course, also do the same in the small village stations where they now have a single and vulnerable 50 kW charger.