Johannesburg - TAKING seven cars, all electric, across a country where the national power utility has created a brand-new word for its own ineptness - and is hell-bent on impoverishing the next generation through hyper expensive and asphyxiating coal-fired mega power plants - seems at best like an exercise in futility, at worst an impossible dream.
Yet that’s exactly what Ben Pullen, the co-founder and chief executive of Generation-e and the organiser of Electric Vehicle Road Trip (EVRT) Africa, set out to do - to prove that seven commercially available electric vehicles (EVs) could make it from Gauteng through another three provinces in an epic 2000km road trip that came to an end in Cape Town on Thursday night.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” says Pullen, who has been evangelising the gospel of EV through European and Middle East road trips over the past four years; “these cars are great and the only thing keeping them back is the infrastructure, like the charging stations but we knew that and that’s why we partnered with who we did because this is about showing what can be done.
“In fact, the charging stations are not just a pre-requisite for the successful adoption of EVs anywhere, they are also a guaranteed job creator.”
At the moment, South Africa has 121 charging stations throughout the country, most of them at Nissan, BMW and Jaguar dealerships, the three manufacturers who have introduced EVs to the South African market.
Now, says Hitek Parmar, you can even drive down the N3 from Johannesburg to Durban thanks to the installation of a fast charger at Harrismith. A further six were installed by South African electrical company ACDC Dynamics along the EVRT route.
EVRT Africa has been about learning as much as publicising, and Pullen and his team have learnt much over the last week and a half, like not running the recharging units at full power for fear of tripping an entire residential block - as they did in Kroonstad. Instead they did them one at a time. The process was longer, but the cars still made it to the coast.
South Africa’s grid instability though could be a blessing in disguise says Parmar, the director of uYilo, the e-mobility innovation centre at Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela University set up in 2013 to investigate ways of developing technology around electromobility.
He believes load shedding made South Africans far more energy conscious and that the uptake of EVs could be even faster because essentially EVs are batteries on wheels.
His unit has pioneered a vehicle-to-grid project which will allow excess energy in the car battery to be fed back into the national grid when the car is parked in the garage at night. Its most important application is to power your house. His researchers - doctoral, master and undergraduates drawn from an eclectic mix of academic disciplines from computer science to chemical and mechanical engineering - are testing batteries, developing and designing prototype EVs from scooters to safari viewing vehicles.
They have developed a mini smart grid that uses in-house developed apps to source energy from the solar panels above the carport for uYilo’s sponsored EV car fleet, or from Eskom at the utility’s cheapest rates and then storing them in second life batteries - the battery packs that were once in the EVs themselves.
Storage has always been the biggest problem with electricity generation, now the solution could lie in a second life for the batteries the EV manufacturers replace at 80% of their lives. These batteries still have another 10 - 15 years of life in them as power storage units especially in households.
Load shedding, Parmar says, effectively started the process of decarbonising the national power grid, despite Eskom’s continued insistence on forging ahead with the commissioning of the giant Kusile and Medupi coal-fired plants in Mpumalanga.
South Africans who have moved off the grid with their own solar panels and petrol generators might be among the first adopters of EVs, simply to close the circle and avoid not just the attendant pollution issues associated with internal combustion engines and fossil fuels, but actually just to sidestep supply and price uncertainty of fossil fuel.
For him, it’s a no-brainer, even though EVs are more expensive to buy, they’re far cheaper to maintain with far less moving parts and far fewer things that can go wrong - they also cost less to run: “You’ll pay 24 cents per km for EV as opposed to R1.24/km at the current petrol price.”
For David Rubia of the UN Environment Programme(Unep), EVs are chiefly about the saving the environment and improving the air quality, but also about giving Africa a very real chance to reset the mobility narrative.
Unep’s concern is that the current global motorisation rate of 1 billion vehicles is set to almost triple over the next 30 years with most of the growth occurring in the developing world with Africa already set to miss its emission targets - the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change.
Shifting to electromobility could seriously drop the emission rate as well as domesticate energy in a continent which largely imports its own fossil fuel, harnessing the very rich renewable sources that exist, from solar to hydro, thermo and wind.
There’s also the possibility to channel Zambia’s rich copper deposits for the manufacturing of electric motors and Congo’s cobalt for batteries, creating indigenous manufacturing opportunities and jobs.
He drove the first leg from Pretoria to Port Elizabeth, enthused about disproving the range anxiety that fuels most EV doubters
“EVRT Africa is an opportunity to showcase what can be done. It tempers the whole range anxiety debate and brings a whole lot of people together to show what’s happening in Africa rather than the electro- mobility debate always being a Western conversation.”
On Wednesday night, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula symbolically cut the ribbon for the new electric charging stations installed at the Vineyard Hotel in Claremont, Cape Town.
“We have our work cut out for us,” he said, seeking inspiration from Martin Luther King jr: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today there is such a thing as being too late This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”