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Gorrie: Milkman’s EV was ahead of its time

Higher mileage of vans and fleets offset the added purchase costs for electric vehicles. But passenger cars are less cost-effective.

Published June 29, 2012

Something forgotten returned as I read a new report called “Electric Vehicles Revisited: Costs, Subsidies and Prospects.”

Waaay back when I was a kid, the Fairglen Dairy guy who delivered milk to our house — yes, that was the routine — covered his route in an electric van.

The report, prepared for the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Transport Forum, which includes Canada and 52 other countries, reminded me of that ancient time.

Its author, Forum senior researcher Phillippe Crist, compares the lifetime costs of EVs and internal-combustion vehicles.

EVs are now somewhere on the “hype cycle,” that can plunge overblown hopes into the “Trough of Disillusionment,” Crist says.

“New technologies are often greeted by over-enthusiasm, boundless optimism and inflated expectations. If these technologies fail to meet expectations, they risk falling into (the trough) where consumers and others quickly move on.”

It’s difficult to say where exactly EVs are on the cycle, but “enthusiasm is high, expectations are far-ranging and critical analysis … is limited.”

Failure might once again follow hype, as happened in the early 20th Century and the 1990s.

Crist compares three vehicles sold in France by Renault, which produce similar internal-combustion — in this case, diesel — and electric models. They include small cars, larger sedans and delivery vans. Purchase incentives, fuel and maintenance costs, taxes and other ingredients in the calculations are also French. But conditions are comparable here.

In general, Crist concludes that over 15 years, electric passenger cars cost a consumer about $5,000 to $6,500 more to buy and operate than internal-combustion equivalents. The cost to “society,” which includes subsides, is nearly double.

On that score, when Nissan launched its electric Leaf in Australia last week, its global manager of product strategy, Francois Bancon, told reporters government support “is the key” to sales.

“This technology is expensive; the car is expensive. Where we sell the best is where the governments offer their support … not only the incentive for the direct purchase, but also they are investing in the infrastructure.”

A few days later, a top German official said his country would miss its target of a million EVs on the road by 2020, without more incentives.

On the environmental side — assuming the vehicles average 35 kilometres every day, and including the emissions from producing, transporting and consuming their fuels — each battery-powered car would generate 18 to 23 tonnes less carbon dioxide than a diesel burner.

Crunching all these numbers produces a cost of $675 to $880 per tonne of greenhouse gas saved by EVs, which, Crist notes, “is at the high end of the range of costs of measures to reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector.”

It’s a gloomy assessment: We might, indeed, be headed for that Trough of Disillusionment.

But here’s why I recalled those milk deliveries.

Crist got much more positive results for the battery-powered van. While it, too, has a higher price tag, it’s expected to get more use — an average of 90 kilometres each weekday — so it achieves greater fuel and emissions savings than its internal-combustion sibling. Even without subsidies, it’s about as cheap to buy and run.

The conclusion: For personal passenger cars, with their issues of range and cost offsetting marvelous performance, battery power requires substantial support that’s of debatable value. But it can already stand on its own for delivery vans or fleets.

Crist puts it this way: “In those cases where EVs already compare favourably to fossil-fuelled vehicles, subsidies may be superfluous and … where they do not compare favourably, the onus is on demonstrating that subsidies represent value for money.”

So, Fairglen Dairy had it right all those years ago. Could it be we’ve come this far just to return to the same place?

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