According to figures out last week, 37% of new cars bought in Norway in January were electric. That’s the highest rate of EV adoption anywhere – for comparison, Britain is at 4%. That’s new cars sold, bear in mind. In terms of actual cars on the road we’re still only talking about 5% electric cars, but since Norway is one of those countries with (very nearly) 100% renewable energy, that’s enough to make theirs one of the world’s cleaner automotive fleets.
Nobody is going for electric cars the way Norway has, and that means they provide a good example of how to encourage them. So what can we learn from the Norwegians?
First, we really are late starters. Incentives to buy electric were first introduced in 1990, which was arguably too early – they weren’t good enough for anyone to want one then. Still, that early attention has laid some groundwork. EVs are viewed positively, are aspirational, and as soon as the technology matured there were customers ready for them.
There’s an interesting civil disobedience story behind that very early start. In 1989 the environmental NGO Bellona imported Norway’s first ever electric car. They advocated for incentives by recruiting various celebrities, including the pop group Aha, and then driving their EV on toll roads without paying. They were repeatedly fined and refused to pay, then bought the car back after it had been impounded and sold at auction. After being fined 17 times, the government gave in and granted toll road exemption. It has remained ever since.
Over the years a number of other incentives have been added. Here are some of the bonuses that EV drivers now enjoy:
- No VAT on new cars – a big saving on a normally very high VAT rate of 25%
- Free parking in public car parks
- Driving in bus lanes
- Free access to toll roads
- Free road ferries
- Lower annual road taxes
- A ‘negative incentive’ is that petrol is taxed heavily in Norway, making it expensive. EVs are cheap to run by comparison.
Missing from that list is subsidies or grants for buying electric cars, something that Britain and several other European countries do. Presumably the high VAT rate is enough to sway people on that front. There are higher sales bands on less efficient cars too, so you have to be pretty committed/rich to buy a fast and polluting car.
Another big factor normally associated with EV adoption is charging infrastructure, as there’s always a ‘chicken and egg’ situation with charging points. Who moves first – car purchasers? Electric car producers? Independent charging network start-ups? The government? Surprisingly, Norway doesn’t boast that impressive a charging network, especially on the highway network. There were a couple of false starts, with charging companies getting ahead of the market and going bankrupt. The government is supporting investment there, but the lag in charging provision doesn’t appear to have held EVs back, perhaps because most EV buyers are buying them as a second car.
With a 25 year legacy of support for EVs, I suspect the Norwegian experience can’t really be replicated. But there’s no doubt that we can do more to encourage people to switch, and I’ll report on what Britain is up to another time.