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As the effects of global warming become more obvious and the world becomes more aware of the environment, consumers are choosing products that either positively affect the environment or, if nothing else, have minimal negative impact. This changing consciousness has seen some incredible inventions, one of the most noteworthy being the electric vehicle (or EV). Many car manufacturers, eager not to become redundant in the future, have already started producing electric models that offer ranges comparable to petrol and diesel vehicles in the hope that their planet-friendly vehicles will appeal to early adopters.

China is setting ambitious targets to increase electric vehicle sales to curb their problem with pollution and some European countries are vowing to be all-electric by 2040. Many countries have set to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars after 2040; Britain has already done so. However, there are still various challenges and practical considerations for customers – such as where they would charge their electric vehicles. This begs the question: how far into the future is the widespread use of electric cars? Let’s take a closer look.

A global challenge

One of the biggest concerns people have around electric cars is where to charge them and what would happen if they unexpectedly ran out of battery. Electric cars and charging stations have taken off in some countries where there is buy-in from government. Places like China, the Netherlands and California already have myriads of public charging stations and outlets. For those in the US who have bought any of the high-end Teslas, they will have access to a ‘Supercharger’ network which is free for up to around 1000 miles (over 1600 kilometres) and only a nominal fee is paid for any additional charges over and above the free mileage. Each Tesla also comes with adaptors that can plug right into household outlets, which means Tesla owners can charge their car in the comfort of their home while they sleep. And, if they use solar power, they can power their car with renewable energy.

Unfortunately, these solutions aren’t yet available in South Africa. And while Tesla might have created a innovative way for their cars to stay powered, there are still many places around the globe where public charging stations are scarce.

Where is South Africa?

South Africa – while not quite yet on the Tesla map (rumoured to hit South Africa’s shores in 2019) – has certainly already joined the electric revolution. The infrastructure to fully support electric cars is still far off, but as it currently stands, over and above a range of hybrid options, three fully electric cars are available on the market, namely the BMW i3 and i8 and the Nissan LEAF. 

Four BMW and nine Nissan dealerships are equipped with electric car charging stations (seven of the Nissan dealerships sell the Nissan LEAF). There is also an agreement between BMW and Nissan to share their charging networks to encourage the sale and use of electric cars as a whole. Cape Town is also looking to install numerous charging stations soon and a few charging stations are already available in Johannesburg. With the current interest, South Africans are sure to see a huge surge in infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

What still needs to be done?

Many would-be EV owners worry that the current charging network is still very small and that it will be in a long time before we see the widespread distribution of charging points. But there is an bigger underlying issue that needs to be addressed before we can even consider the large scale development of infrastructure for EVs.

A charging network is only as good as its power supply. More specifically, a large network of frequently used charge points would need a reliable industrial-strength power supply, and Eskom has so far proven to be far from reliable in even meeting our energy needs. Much would need to be done to ensure that the national grid has the capacity to cope with the petrol-to-electric switch, and energy producers and government need to anticipate and prepare for higher energy demands.

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