In the traffic-packed city of Rotterdam, electric cars jostle for space at charging stations. Three new coal-fired power plants, including two in the Rotterdam harbor, are supplying much of the power to fuel the Netherlands’ electric car boom. As the world tries to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and combat climate change, policy makers have pinned hopes on electric cars, whose range and convenience are quickly improving. Alongside the boom has come a surging demand for power to charge the vehicles, which can consume as much electricity in a single charge as the average refrigerator does in a month and a half.
The global shift to electric cars has a clear climate benefit in regions that get most of their power from clean sources, such as California or Norway. But in areas supplied by dirtier power, like China, India and even the Netherlands, which is on track to miss ambitious emission targets set for 2020, the electric car jump has slimmer payoffs. Cutting transportation-related emissions can help but not if pollution is simply shifted from the tailpipes of cars to the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, which generates 40% of the world’s electricity.
Generous Dutch tax incentives have cut the cost of electric vehicles, and the high cost of gasoline (nearly $7/gallon) has also spurred more people to buy the cars, making the country second only to Norway in terms of percentage of electric vehicles on the road. Four percent of all cars sold in the Netherlands last year were electric. Starting next year, Rotterdam will ban from its city center all gasoline cars built before mid-1992 and diesels built before 2001.
Drivers say they appreciate knowing that they are doing something positive for the environment, even as they contend with having to adopt a new driving style. “You get more relaxed. You don’t want to push down too hard because that will really drain your battery,” said Paul van den Hurk, an electric-vehicle consultant who drives a Nissan Leaf, an electric car with a range of about 85 miles. “You can listen to the music on your stereo because you don’t hear the roar of your engine.” In many ways, the Netherlands could be an ideal home for electric cars.
The country is densely populated and smaller than Virginia. The best vehicles can now cross the nation on a single charge. Tesla, the California-based manufacturer of high end electric cars, has made the Netherlands its European beachhead, opening a new factory in the central city of Tilburg in September, where vehicles are assembled for the company’s growing European market. For now, the plant is putting out 90 vehicles a day, whose price can run well over $100,000, but it could triple that production rate. In a high profile endorsement, 200 of the taxis that serve the airport are now Teslas, and the city wants to convert its entire taxi fleet to electric within the next decade. A charge up for a Tesla costs $20 and that gives it a 250 mile range. Tesla plans in 2017 to start producing a model aimed at the mass market that would cost $35,000.
Rotterdam’s grid operator says that it faces a challenge with the increase in electric cars even as it encourages their use. Household electricity demand will rise as the vehicles spread.
The amount of electricity the vehicles will need will increase by 50% by 2023, according to government projections, although it is still just a fraction of the overall consumption of the country. Electricity generated from renewable sources is increasing in the Netherlands, but with overall demand for electricity rising, the percentage of coal-generated electricity is staying stubbornly high. Coal provided 29% of the country’s electricity last year, and it spiked even higher this year.
Kayode Adeoye is an energy analyst from Lagos.