LONDON (Reuters) - The electric vehicle revolution has been stalled by COVID-19.
Global new electric passenger sales are forecast to fall by 18% to 1.7 million this year, according to research company BloombergNEF (BNEF). (“Long-term Electric Vehicle Outlook”, May 19, 2020).
True, sales of combustion engine vehicles are forecast to fall by an even harder 23% as the coronavirus hits consumer spending, but it’s a dramatic change of fortune for the EV sector after 10 years of uninterrupted growth.
Moreover, automakers are now having to juggle retooling operations for EV production with simply staying in business as sales implode, while low oil prices compound the headwinds by flipping the cost-parity dial back in favour of internal combustion cars.
“The long-term trajectory has not changed, but the (EV) market will be bumpy for the next three years,” said Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport for BNEF.
Faced with a stalling EV revolution, political leaders are about to provide a jump-start.
China, the world’s largest EV market, has reversed its intention of ending a subsidy scheme for new-energy vehicles but it’s Europe that looks set to provide the biggest accelerator.
Beijing had planned to phase out subsidies on new EV purchases this year but will now extend them for another two years, albeit with a tapering of 10% this year, 20% next year and 30% in 2022.
Higher-cost vehicles have also been excluded, leading Tesla (TSLA.O) to reduce the price of its Model 3 sedans in China.
Subsidies are unchanged for new public sector purchases and the Chinese government shows no sign of dropping its commitment to drive EV sales to 25% of total sales by 2025.
Indeed, “new infrastructure” made it onto the agenda of China’s annual National People’s Congress last month.
There will be an accelerated build-out of charging capacity with State Grid Corp of China coordinating a new platform for interconnecting multiple private charging operators.
Whether these collective measures will do much to boost short-term sales in the wake of COVID-19 remains to be seen but they represent a significant reaffirmation of China’s support for the EV sector.
The EV revolution was shifting towards Europe even before this tumultuous year for the global auto industry.
New emissions standards have kicked in for internal combustion vehicles, while the “diesel-gate” scandal continues to hang heavy over sales of even the newest diesel vehicles.
European electric vehicle sales held up relatively well during the first-quarter but still only accounted for 4.3% of registrations, according to the ACEA auto association.
The region’s leaders are now doubling down on their bets for a green future and Germany is leading the way.
Berlin’s 130 billion euro (£116 billion) coronavirus stimulus plan doubles subsidies on purchases of new EVs, bringing the total incentive to 9,000 euros.
Automakers’ pleas for an across-the-board subsidy on all new vehicle sales to help clear a backlog of unsold gas and diesel cars were firmly rebuffed.
Equally significant is a stipulation that all German gasoline stations offer EV charging facilities.
Details are still sketchy but Germany’s BDEW association of energy and water industries estimates the country needs to grow its charging network to 70,000 stations from 29,000 currently if it is to achieve a mass EV market.
Charging infrastructure has been a major impediment to EV adoption in many European countries but consumers’ “range-fear” will be challenged head-on by such a visible expansion of charging capacity.
France, meanwhile, has unveiled an 8 billion euro plan with the aim, according to President Emmanuel Macron, of becoming “Europe’s top producer of clean vehicles by bringing output (up) to more than one million electric and hybrid cars per year over the next five years”.
Unlike Germany, Paris is providing a 3,000-euro subsidy on all new vehicle sales, including combustion engine, but the existing EV subsidy has been hiked to 7,000 euros.
Greece, an EV laggard with electric cars accounting for just 0.3% of its fleet, has just announced a combined subsidy and charging infrastructure programme, while Italy is currently mulling its own automotive support package.
Then there’s the European Union’s 750 billion euro “green stimulus” package including 20 billion euros to boost sales of “clean” vehicles and 2 million electric and hydrogen vehicle charging stations set to be installed by 2025.
Will people use cars less, as cities look to capitalise on the cleaner air of lockdowns? Or more, as people shun public transport?
The long-term changes to the transport sector caused by COVID-19 are still highly uncertain but one thing is increasingly clear: Both Chinese and European governments are going to make sure that however many cars are on the road, more of them are going to be electric.
Europe was already on its way to building out charging capacity but at widely differing national rates and collectively too slowly relative to likely demand.
The pace is evidently going to quicken appreciably now as EV-friendly stimulus packages accelerate the shift towards electrification.
The entire EV supply chain has been upended with the coronavirus compounding oversupply of key battery inputs such as lithium and cobalt, causing low prices and producer curtailments.
The collective assumption is that the sector is going to experience a bumpy few years as EV sales slow in line with broader automotive weakness.
COVID-19, however, might yet generate a different outcome. The electric vehicle revolution looks like it’s about to get a super-fast recharge.
(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)
Editing by Kirsten Donovan