Germany Boosts Electric Vehicle Development

mini EGermany, the birthplace of Volkswagen, Porsche, and BMW, plans to become a global leader for developing low-carbon vehicles. 

The country will increase electric vehicle production from less than 2,000 units currently to 1 million units by 2020 and 5 million units by 2030, aided by some 500 million euros (US$705 million) in research funding through 2012, the government announced last month.

Overall, German greenhouse gas emissions have fallen some 21 percent since 1990, but transportation-related emissions increased roughly 1 percent through 2005. To achieve its target of a 40-percent emissions reduction sectorwide by 2020, Germany plans to use the long-awaited electric vehicle plan to further trim transport emissions.

"The federal government's target is to make Germany the leading market for electric mobility," the Environment Ministry said in a statement. "Power for electrically driven vehicles can be generated from a number of primary energy sources, thus helping to promote independence from oil imports and fluctuating petrol prices."

But plugging electric vehicles into the power grid will not guarantee low-carbon transportation. Even in Germany, a world leader in renewable energy production, coal-fired power plants are expected to supply at least 40 percent of the country's electricity in 2020. A debate is now brewing within the German government about how electric vehicles can best lower emissions.

The Environment Ministry insists that the electricity used to charge plug-in vehicles should come exclusively from renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind power. Otherwise, the greater demand for electricity from the vehicles could increase overall German emissions.

But the Ministry of Economics and Technology argues that placing strict limits on vehicle charging would require electricity providers to concentrate renewable energy generation in areas with large shares of electric vehicles. This could overburden the power grid and threaten the country with blackouts, according to renewable energy experts within the ministry.

German car manufacturers are considering marketing strategies that could help ease the environmental burden consumers may feel if they charge electric vehicles using the current, largely fossil fuel-based, grid. Renewable energy providers in Germany ordinarily collect government certificates to confirm that the prices they collect for their low-carbon electricity are higher than the market price for standard electricity generation. Under the proposals, auto manufacturers would purchase the certificate directly from the renewable energy providers and sell the certificates to electric vehicle consumers along with the cars.

An efficient "smart grid" may also be needed to ensure that electric vehicles release fewer emissions. Some experts worry that the vehicles would draw electricity from the grid during peak energy consumption periods and therefore increase power production needs. An advanced grid would allow operators to control when and where the electricity flows. Through smarter grid management, plug-in electric vehicles could store electricity when renewable energy sources such as wind are abundant and feed power back to the grid at times of higher demand.

Germany plans to develop a smart grid network in conjunction with its Scandinavian and southern European neighbors. Research efforts are also under way in 16 municipalities to test the use of "smart meters," which allow the utility to monitor individual electricity use and improve efficiency. The results of the first pilot projects are expected next year.

Environmentalists have criticized the new electric vehicle plan for offering no guarantee that emissions will be reduced, and for insufficiently encouraging fuel efficiency.

Average carbon dioxide emissions from new cars sold in Germany fell nearly 2 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the European Federation for Transport and Environment. Improved efficiency in the German auto fleet has helped reduce domestic oil consumption as well, but vehicle manufacturers have resisted higher fuel-efficiency standards, preventing greater cuts in transportation-related emissions, critics say.

Sascha Müller-Kraenner, the Berlin-based European representative of The Nature Conservancy, said the German government will likely struggle to transition its drivers to less carbon-intensive vehicle use.

"The car is holy in Germany," Müller-Kraenner said. "It's relatively easy to regulate big industry and power producers. It's much more difficult to regulate private consumers."

Germany is the latest country to announce ambitious electric vehicle plans. U.S. President Barack Obama has called for 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to be in service by 2015, a goal he supported last month with the authorization of $2.4 billion in federal grants for electric vehicle research. The United Kingdom announced in April that consumers would receive 5,000 pounds (US$7,400) in subsidies for the purchase of plug-in hybrids. France provided $550 million to subsidize the development and construction of "carbon-free" vehicles in 2008. And Spain announced in July that 1 million electric vehicles would be placed on its roads by 2014, offering subsidies for 15-20 percent of the vehicles' cost.

Germany has not decided whether it too will offer subsidies to electric vehicle consumers. The government estimates, however, that subsidizing as much as one-third of the cost of a vehicle's battery should allow for competitiveness with gasoline-powered vehicle counterparts. How the subsidy would be financed remains to be decided, but likely sources include general tax revenue or the country's relatively high gasoline tax.

Before subsidy decisions would be are announced, German government officials and industry leaders hope to answer several looming questions.

"What will at the end be the lifetime for the battery? What will be the price of the battery?" said Patrick Schnell, head of innovation and sustainable development at TOTAL Deutschland, an oil company. "These are open questions that will not be answered until the next two to three years."

Daimler and BMW plan to introduce their first electric vehicle models by 2012. Volkswagen has said it will roll out its first electric vehicle in 2013.

German auto manufacturers and the government are also investing in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, another alternative, which emit only hydrogen and water. A combined 1.4 billion euros (US$2 billion) will be committed from 2007 to 2016, according to the Clean Energy Partnership, an international alliance of oil companies and auto manufacturers that seeks to advance fuel-cell vehicles.

The reporting for this story was made possible courtesy of funding provided by the German and Danish foreign ministries.

Correction: The original caption stated the Mini E could drive 175 kilometers-per-hour in the city and 154 kph on highways. These statistics should have refered to the vehicle's range, not speed. 

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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