Electric cars – the way of the future or an expensive pipe dream?
Next month business owners and members of the public will get the opportunity to test-drive an electric car at the eDRIVE conference at the Titanic building.
Northern Ireland is a priority region for the Department for Transport's Plugged In Places funding, with plans to install 44 public charging points in towns and cities as well as funding for the installation of 300 charge points – 150 in homes and 150 in workplaces.
Businesses in Northern Ireland can apply for a free, fully installed electric vehicle charge point, using a government grant for an intelligent wall-mounted charge point and its installation, which would normally cost upwards of £1,000. The grant funding offer ends on March 31.
The number of electric car drivers is set to double every year and with the vast majority of motorists driving under 30 miles per day in their cars – well within the range of an electric car, supporters say that 100 miles of motoring costs just over £2 in an electric car, charged off-peak, compared to over £12 in a petrol or diesel-driven car.
But it still remains to be seen if already-struggling businesses here will shell out the initial expensive outlay in order to make cash savings in future.
Dr Norry McBride of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Research Group at the University of Ulster's Business School said that with more rural travel required in Northern Ireland, electric cars may not catch on as easily as they would in large urban centres like London.
"In our quest to seek alternative means of running cars, dependent on petrol and diesel, manufacturers have already achieved some success with the Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius and Renault Twizy," she said.
"Since January 2011, motorists purchasing a qualifying ultra-low emission car have been able to receive a grant of 25% towards the cost of the vehicle, up to a maximum of £5,000.
"While government financial incentives are welcomed to reduce the initial capital outlay, the technology is not yet in place to replace our reliance on fossil fuel driven automobiles.
"Issues such as battery life, limited mileage and lack of charging points make the transition to electric and electric/hybrid cars more difficult.
"Large metropolitan centres such as London, which already have in place electric car hiring facilities at a reasonable cost, will always be ahead in comparison to regions such as Northern Ireland.
"Furthermore, drivers' expectations in having air-con, sat-navs and running lights, in many ways is still a challenge and a compromise to the battery life of the electric car.
"Other issues relating to our behaviour patterns when it comes to, for example, commuting to work, means that we still are, despite traffic congestion, high fuel costs and CO2 emission rates, inseparable from our traditional fuelled car.
"The consideration for business owners really only exist for urban activities such as service deliveries and advertising purposes.
"In terms of investment, it's more a case of endorsing innovation at this stage rather than seeking a return on capital employed.
"Electric cars, like the first generation wind turbines, are noticed but not taken seriously and, like renewable energy, this perception will change sooner rather than later," she said.
£2 a day: the cost of running my Renault Twizy
Stephen Kane, managing director, Solv Group, Belfast
Solv Group installs technology that makes buildings more energy efficient, so I'm used to offsetting the cost of an asset against the long-term cost-savings it provides.
The fuel bill on my business car used to be upwards of £7,500 a year. Eighteen months ago I took a serious look at electric cars and decided to trade in my own petrol 4x4 for a Renault Twizy, which cost £8,000.
I now use this for commuting and business motoring in the Belfast area.
We have solar PV panels at work, and the electricity cost on running the car is around £1 a day, so it will pay for itself in about 12 months. I opted to use POD Point for my charging point as I felt they were professional in their approach to my needs and I liked the touch and feel of the product. When they told me I could source a grant of up to £1,500 my mind was made up.
I'm convinced that the future of motoring includes electric cars and vans. When our staff cars are due for renewal they will be driving electric cars. In common with most small business owners, I keep a close eye on the costs of running a fleet of vans. The current range for electric vans is 70-80 miles, and we really need a range of over 100 miles to make this a viable option, but as soon as the range improves on electric vans we'll be switching over the fleet as well.
For obvious reasons I opted to have doors on the Twizy, and to make it work harder for the business I got the doors branded with our livery, so I get instant recognition when I'm on the roads.
The Twizy may look like a fun car, but it has provided great value to the business, and my son uses it at the weekends so I'm getting social use out of it as well.
'Zero road tax and a big cost saving on fuel'
Bill Beers, director, Beers Engineering Consultancy Ltd
The decision to purchase a Peugeot Ion was made primarily for financial reasons – with zero road tax and enhanced capital allowances it will provide a simple financial payback of less than five years.
Last year I took a close look at the running costs of electric cars, and the fact that these will be around 20% of petrol/diesel engines provided a compelling financial argument for purchase. I was convinced that the Peugeot Ion range of 60-70 miles would cover the greater Belfast commuting radius, which is where I do more than half my business mileage.
I based the running cost calculations on a conservative scenario of using the Ion for half the working week, but the installation of more charging facilities in Belfast may well mean that I use the car more, which would obviously save more money for the business.
I've bought a POD Point charging unit so we can monitor our electricity usage and running costs. It's our business to advise on the whole life cycle costs of projects and equipment, and with energy an ever-increasing cost to business, it makes sense for us to practise what we preach.
The technology in electric cars is sufficiently mature for us to know that it is here to stay, and the stability and regulation of electricity prices means there has never been a more opportune time to invest in energy efficient vehicles.