Dismal Outlook for EVs on Both Sides of the Atlantic

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Nissan Leaf photoFor electric vehicle enthusiasts with the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, who endorse endless taxpayer subsidies for plug-in automobiles and infrastructure to charge them, there’s bad news this week.

The Daily Mail reported that sales of electric cars in the United Kingdom have fallen so sharply that there are now more charging stations than there are vehicles. If you thought the flaccid U.S. sales of the Chevy Volt (7,671 units) and Nissan Leaf (9,674 units) were a letdown – despite significant government funding for research and development, batteries, charging systems, and a $7,500 tax credit for buyers – the signs from Europe won’t lift spirits.

“Just 2,149 electric cars have been sold since 2006, despite a government scheme last year offering customers up to £5,000 (about $7,700 U.S. dollars) towards the cost of a vehicle,” the U.K. newspaper reported. “The Department for Transport says that around 2,500 charging points have been installed, although their precise location is not known.”

That’s just 430 cars sold per year. In addition, Britain has spent £30 million on charging points for public and business locations, and EV buyers have taken advantage of only £3.9 million of the £300 million in government grants made available for EV purchases, according to The Daily Mail

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has predicted that Leaf sales in the U.S. will double in 2012, and he believes electric cars will make up 10 percent of all vehicles sold by 2020. Meanwhile at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the Obama administration’s $7,500 tax credit for EV buyers in the U.S., despite the fact that mostly wealthy buyers have received the incentive. The secretary said the taxpayer subsidy “is real money and people have utilized it.” EV advocates crowed that the Volt outsold the Leaf in December – its best month – and cited it as an sign of positive momentum for sales in 2012.

But parallel indicators to the U.K. experience foretell potential disinterest. In Tennessee an aggressive test program for EVs is being rolled out with a $2,500 tax rebate from the state (in addition to the $7,500 federal tax credit); a $1.4 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan to Nissan to retrofit its Smyna plant to build Leafs; and part of a $115 million grant from DOE going to Ecotality to establish a network of charging stations, many at Cracker Barrel restaurants alongside Tennessee Interstates. But so far only 228 Leafs were sold in the Volunteer State, using up only 20 percent of the tax rebate fund that’s available.

And on Monday AFP reported that ten years after the introduction of the hybrid Toyota Prius into the U.S. market, only three percent of all vehicles sold are electric or gas-electric hybrids.

“Initially there was probably some excessive exuberance about the green auto,” said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research. “But the economics are not attractive yet for the average consumer.”

The aversion to EVs exists north of the border as well, where the Montreal Gazette reported there are “so many green cars, so few buyers” as “automakers keep pushing electrics, despite slow sales.” Only 58,000 of the 18 million vehicles sold in Canada the last 11 years were hybrids.

And as if to add a final stake of debunking to the propaganda that heralded EVs for nearly all of 2011, Motley Fool analyst Alex Planes characterized the build-up as leading to a “big face-plant,” calling the year-long romance “America’s sad love affair with the electric car.” In explaining how unrealistic the hype really was, he cites from Robert Bryce’s book Power Hungry examples of previous overstatements about the promise of EVs – that date back to 1911. 

As for the charging network, the stations planted anywhere other than EV owners’ homes appear to be getting little or no use. That’s because the minimum time it takes to fully recharge a Leaf battery – which might extend the range an additional 70 miles, under ideal climatic and topographic conditions – is 30 minutes, if you are using one of the fastest chargers in the network (440 volts). Most chargers are much slower, and require several hours for a full recharge, which is why owners are doing so at home and are using their EVs for trips of limited distance from their homes.

“In Washington state, only one percent of the time were the vehicles connected to the public charging infrastructure,” said Jim Francfort, an investigator for the Idaho National Laboratory who is tracking use of the chargers. “While over in Oregon, they were connected about 7 percent of the time to the public infrastructure, although only one percent of that time were they actually charging.”

So millions of taxpayer dollars are going into an electrification network for EVs that will get little use, because recharging at the stations is impractical for consumers. If the technology ever gets to the point where charging can be done quicker, then all the existing stations will need to either be replaced or retrofitted, also likely at taxpayer expense.

But if EV sales resemble anything like the trend in the U.K., the chargers will outnumber the vehicles that are on the road. There’s no reason to think that in the U.S., where Americans can and must travel much greater distances in general than the British do, that sales as a percentage of population will be any better. It’s just not practical.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.