Why Africa's adoption of electric vehicles is in low gear

Electric Bus by BasiGo on display during the inaugural E-mobility conference to define the road map for electric motorization in the country. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

As the world moves from use of fossil fuels to clean energy, the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region is lagging behind despite its vast renewable energy resources.

Amid calls for creation of standards across the African continent, the continent is seeking funding to allow for optimal use of wind and solar power, which are available aplenty.

Countries also seek an integration that will convert national grids to regional ones, with Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (KETRACO) already having completed 96 per cent of its intended high voltage transmission line connections in Tanzania and inching further into other countries, according to the firm’s corporate commmunications manager Raphael Mworia.

There are also over 5,000 active energy projects estimated at $1.9 trillion in the MEA, says BNC, the largest project intelligence service in the MEA.

But even as industry experts, such as Nicolas Daher, the lead energy analyst at The Economist Intelligence, warn that demand for fossil fuel will remain high for the next decade and coal use peaks in China in 2028, a possible proliferation of electric vehicles will slow down any accelerated use of oil.

The world’s demand for cleaner energy has intensified especially on the back of reports that greenhouse gases’ emissions reduced significantly during Covid-19, when industrial activity and transportation were suppressed.

But United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said that Covid “did not slow the relentless advance of climate change” and that, as global leaders deliberated at Cop26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021, temperatures were unlikely to dip to under 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as a result.

A temporary reprieve for those selling fossil fuel is the fact that electric vehicles are way more expensive than their internal combustion engine counterparts.

This means that few of them will be reaching African markets immediately, and for the common folk.

Also, unlike fuel companies that have long set up fueling stations, charging stations are not yet established.

It could take some time for electric vehicles to gain a foothold and kick out sellers of alternative energy.

Within that period, these fossil fuel traders will have a chance to adapt and to adopt every necessary system that will keep them competitive when, finally, the transition, or overhaul, comes.

In some countries, vehicles powered by fossil fuels will be phased out by 2030. This is mostly in the west, with Africa’s adoption of electric vehicles expected to be slower.

It is expected that around 350 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2035.

The Kenya Power and Lighting Company recently set aside Sh40 million that will enable it transition to electric vehicles while phasing out fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and motorbikes from its fleet.

The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra), in a more diplomatic move, asked for widespread use of hybrid vehicles, those that can use either of fossil fuel or one or more electric motors.

Reports show that over the next decade, diesel and petrol-powered vehicles will continue to dominate market share, as “Tomorrow’s Vehicles: What Will We Drive in 2023?” a report by the Fuels Institute indicates.

Market shares could reduce; the report indicated that for light-duty vehicles (passenger vehicles and light trucks), gasoline-powered vehicles will continue to dominate the market, although overall market share could decline from 93 per cent in 2012 to as low as 82 per cent of vehicle inventories in 2023.

Diesel-powered vehicles will potentially comprise nearly eight per cent of the market.

Epra says that the integration of electric mobility presents an opportunity to rethink the prevailing transport paradigm and build an interlinked, low-emission transport system with low levels of pollution.

This comes as debate rages on emissions in the lifetimes of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, with proponents of internal combustion engine cars keen to point out that more carbon is emitted in the manufacture of electric vehicles than of internal combustion engine cars.

But electric cars in Europe emit, on average, almost three times less carbon dioxide than their petrol or diesel counterparts.

Fossil fuels are energy-dense and could average twice the energy content of coal.

Technology to extract and refine fossil fuel has only gotten better and sources are so vast they have sufficiently run the global industries for centuries.

And raging debates on the environmental and human right impacts of obtaining mineral components of lithium ion batteries that power most electric vehicles such as cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements continue to hurt electric vehicles’ profile.

In Congo, where cobalt resources were at 3.6 million tonnes in 2019, thrice higher than second best Australia, claims of abuse of rights of local miners, some of them children, abound.

This moral debate is likely to slow down the success of electric vehicles, with the negative publicity attracting human rights demonstrations, inadvertently gifting more time for fossil-fuel sellers to remain in market and adapt.

According to Boston Consulting Group, up to 80 per cent of gas stations could be unprofitable by 2035.

But that’s some time away, enough for fossil fuel manufacturers, and sellers, to morph and conform with the changing times.