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E-MOBILITY: Green wheels: The future's electric — but South Africa's late out of the starting blocks – Daily Maverick


The planet is heating. Most major vehicle manufacturers have plans to ameliorate the negative environmental impacts of their products and road users are increasingly being presented with alternatives to internal combustion engines.

With fewer than 7,000 of the more than 12 million vehicles on South Africa’s roads being emission-free, the country sorely lags behind this global trend and is unlikely to change to any of the alternatives to any meaningful degree at any time soon.

In 2018, the Department of Transport published a report that sketched the outlines of what was an envisioned transport renaissance in South Africa. That report, titled Green Transport Strategy for South Africa: (2018-2050), outlined an ambition to address the impact of the country’s second-dirtiest sector. Studies by various organisations have looked into replacing internal combustion engines with electric drivetrains.

Battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) use lithium-ion batteries while fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use hydrogen as fuel sources. Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical process that generates electricity with the only byproduct being water. Both of these methods to power electric vehicles are and have been under consideration in South Africa. 

Part of the long-term vision described in the Green Transport Strategy (GTS) report called for “the replacement of fossil fuels by vehicle technologies with low or zero tailpipe emissions, such as electric and fuel cell vehicles… coupled with a significantly lower national electricity grid emissions factor due to a large scale switch to renewable energy improvements. This will lead to a dramatic reduction in the carbon intensity of motorised transport.” 

On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his weekly newsletter, reaffirmed that vision, writing that the government intended to “pursue ‘green’ industrialisation, such as manufacturing using green technology and a shift to the production of electric vehicles”.

Transport, according to the GTS report, accounted for 10.8% of the country’s total direct greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, with road transport being responsible for 91.2% of transport’s emissions. South Africa, as a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is obliged to reduce its emissions to restrict global warming to values below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

 

After this threshold, aspects of climate change become increasingly dangerous. “These risks will have increasingly damaging effects on human health, water availability, food production, infrastructure and migration,” Ramaphosa said in the newsletter. 

“South Africa is a developing country experiencing rapid urbanisation, which is intensifying the need for access to reliable transport systems,” the GTS noted, concluding that “In practice, green transport is integral to society, the economy and the environment.”

Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), an independent economic research institution, in their Harnessing electric vehicles for industrial development in South Africa report, said that as of April 2020, “the number of EVs available in South Africa remains limited, with only two battery electric vehicles, 23 hybrid electric vehicles and 10 plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs). No fuel cell electric vehicles are currently on offer.”

“This contrasts with the existing 162 models available worldwide in 2019 (and set to rise to 263 in 2020). The lack of local supply is particularly striking in the entry- and mid-level market segments, with most available models competing in the high-end to niche segments. Correspondingly, the sales of EVs in South Africa have remained extremely marginal with 6,043 EVs sold over the 2010-2019 period, corresponding to less than 0.1% of new car sales.” 

The TIPS report explains that “despite lower running costs, the high upfront purchasing cost of EVs (linked to higher production costs, mainly related to battery production) has been the main inhibitor to increased EV uptake in South Africa. 

This is exacerbated by the effects of the value-added tax (VAT)… limited product availability; and awareness issues emanating from range anxiety, security of electricity supply and a limited understanding of the technology.”

South Africa’s own foray into the EV manufacturing space was not without its share of problems. According to the GreenCape Electric Vehicles Market Intelligence Report 2020, “Kobus Meiring of Optimal Energy and his team started developing the Joule — a local, all-electric family car. This was funded from the national DST’s Innovation Fund (now the TIA) and the IDC with a combined investment of approximately R300-million.”

The car needed R9-billion for commercialisation. The venture failed to demonstrate any economic merit or sustainability.”

Passenger vehicles, however, don’t present the only opportunity — or challenge. 

According to the GreenCape Electric Vehicles Market Intelligence Report 2020, “Public transport presents the best business case for electrification.” 

Minibus taxis and buses are how most of the population gets around and is particularly important for low-to-middle-income households which cannot afford private vehicles. “The electrification of public transport would contribute to an inclusive rollout of e-mobility,” the TIPS report states. 

It continues that “In South Africa, the electrification of public transport remains in its infancy. South African cities are, however, looking to develop electric public transportation.” 

Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) COO Tshepo Kgobe said in October that his organisation is busy with a feasibility study to investigate the possible future use of alternative drivetrains in the Gautrain bus fleet. They hope to be able to pilot an electric bus by year-end. 

In the interim, the lack of a hydrogen refuelling network and the lack of standardised charging infrastructure remains a barrier yet to be overcome. 

South Africa’s national charging infrastructure consists of 92 stations in the major metropolitan areas, according to the Gauteng Provincial Government’s Growing Gauteng Together Through Smart Mobility plan. Gauteng has a total of 67 AC charging stations, the highest concentration of electric mobility in South Africa. 

While passenger vehicles and public transport are the low-hanging fruit in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, they are not the only sites of vehicular innovation. 

On Friday, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) released the Hydrogen Valley Feasibility Study Report. That report gave the thumbs up for South Africa to go ahead and develop a Hydrogen Valley.

The DSI explained that the proposed Hydrogen Valley corridor will be an economic industrial project starting in Limpopo where platinum group metals are being mined and extending through the larger region around Johannesburg, leading finally to Durban.

The study concluded that a Durban and Richards Bay hub “is also a large demand hub and technical potential for hydrogen is seen in heavy-duty trucking with a positive business case.” 

It continues that “around 25% of hydrogen demand in [the] Durban hub will be driven by the heavy-duty trucking industry. Fuel cells trucks are expected to reach competitiveness at a total cost of ownership (TCO) basis with diesel trucks before 2030.”

It also found that “the N1 corridor stretching from Durban and Johannesburg presents an opportunity to deploy hydrogen trucks at scale.”

Anglo American also announced at the launch of the report that the Mogalakwena mine in Limpopo will be home to what may be the world’s largest emission-free mining dump truck. The RHyno project is a “demonstration of feasibility” as one of these trucks has CO2 emissions “akin to nearly 700 cars.” 

As TIPS notes in the conclusion of its report, the development of e-mobility is a multi-faceted endeavour. “EVs”, TIPS says, “represent the only platform to a modern, sustainable transport system in the country and globally. Coupled with the transition to renewable energy technologies (from solar and wind energy to green hydrogen), increased connectivity and changes to spatial development, they also are the road to smart cities, inclusive development and a sustainable economy.” OBP/DM

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