Llewellyn Plugs In: Hob nobbing in Brussels

Robert gets a feel for the UK’s position in the European EV race

By Robert Llewellyn on July 12, 2012 4:45 PM

The Eurostar is great isn’t it, Central London to Central Brussels in under two hours. Smooth as silk rails, bonkers speed you are barely aware of, comfy seats and a tenth of the hassle of flying.

Okay, so this site is all about electric cars, but the Eurostar is an electric train, powered by twelve (count them) three-phase AC asynchronous motors with a total power of 12,200kW (or 16,300 horsepower). Beefy.

I was travelling to Brussels to talk about the future of electric mobility in Europe with a bunch of scientists, bureaucrats and CEOs. Many of these folks were from NGOs, something I’d heard about but never had close contact with.

An NGO for those of you not flitting off to Brussels to hob nob with bureaucrats like I do all the time is a ‘Non Governmental Organisation’, and there are bucket loads of them. They think about the big stuff: health care; social mobility; old age; national infrastructure; basically all aspects of long term planning and the future.

The discussions were very stimulating and revealing, against all the odds the big picture emerging at this level within and around government is that ‘something needs to be done’ about the way we use cars.

Obviously, the drive toward electric mobility is at the forefront of the discussions; they were, after all, sponsored and organised by Nissan and Renault, but they were anything but hidebound by that fact.

There was great awareness that the process was going to be longer and slower than maybe it should, or that many people hoped. There was much talk of the resistance shown by the general public to take the leap to using electric cars. What was clear, however, was that there is far less resistance in many other European countries than the UK.

It was interesting to learn, for instance, that often the lead was coming from cities rather than at state level; that individual cities were in contact with each other as they implemented schemes to encourage alternatives to mass use of ‘fossil burning individual transport units’. OK, I made up that term – no one at the meeting described cars like that – but that’s what they meant. Public transport, bicycles, electric cars and of course car sharing, car-pooling and short term electric car hire. These are already big in European cities and set to grow very quickly.

There were also suggestions as to how to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles by introducing legislation to make them more attractive. While this is hugely contentious in the USA, in Europe it seems to be spreading quite rapidly. This is against a backdrop of enormous financial strain and upheaval, as well as that of the true colossi of the oil, gas and coal industries, which are all doing a roaring trade. The EV industry is still a tiny fraction of the whole picture, but it’s growing all the time.

One of the attendees was a wonderful man from Oslo, Norway who told us about the situation there. Oslo is now the European capital of electric cars; it has more of them than anywhere else. Oslo has free public charging and parking all over the city. Electric cars can use bus lanes meaning, apparently, the morning rush hour into Oslo is the best advert for electric cars they’ve ever had. All the smug EV drivers zoom into town while the ‘realistic’ people who ‘need more range’ sit stationary in massive traffic jams for ages.

"All the smug EV drivers zoom into town while the ‘realistic’ people who ‘need more range’ sit stationary in massive traffic jams for ages."

And I want to remind you this is in Oslo, a cold country. Admittedly, as the speaker explained, a very wealthy country but as I have heard many times, just because you are wealthy and can afford an expensive car, that doesn’t mean you have the right to pollute. No one has that right.

I came away from the meeting better informed and with a slightly more realistic grasp of the massive task ahead. To decarbonise the electricity generating system, to decarbonise road transport and to change the way we own and use cars requires a massive step change in the way we live. It is disruptive and it does require us to change many hard-wired habits, but I think its becoming clear that future generations will have less resistance to this change and will embrace it willingly.

Oh yes, and one more dent in the increasingly frail argument about electricity coming from dirty coal. In Norway, they don’t burn any coal to make electricity, none. All their power is from hydro and wind, so when you drive an electric car in Oslo, it actually has verifiable zero CO2 emissions.

It’s not easy, it’s still not common, but it is possible and it is growing.

About Robert Llewellyn

Columnist Robert Llewellyn is a comedian, actor, presenter and writer. He’s perhaps best known for his role as Kryten in hit BBC comedy Red Dwarf and as co-presenter of Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, but since creating the Carpool series he has been invited to test drive all kinds of cars, from the pure electric Tesla Roadster sports car to the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car. As a result Robert has become an expert on alternatively-fuelled vehicles, in particular electric cars, launching EV web series Fully Charged in 2010.

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