How likely are electric cars in South Africa’s future?

An electric car being charged.
An electric car being charged.
Image: Photo by Silas Stein/picture alliance via Getty Images

Not too many years ago, electronic cars were what flying cars are today: not quite a reality but something we can conjure up happening in the future.

Last year, Elon Musk nonchalantly announced on Twitter that he has plans to launch Tesla’s electric cars in South Africa by the end of 2019. Even though the South African market already offers two all-electric cars, the BMW i3 and the Nissan Leaf, this would mean an introduction of an entire electric car industry to the country.

This came after Jaguar announced that they are looking to partner with GridCars in installing 82 new charging stations at Jaguar Land Rover retailers and a number of points of convenience across South Africa.

Then, earlier this month, Shell SA jumped on the electric car bandwagon, announcing that they will be launching their first electric vehicle charging stations in South Africa this year.

Then, load shedding happened.

Electric cars are not a very popular choice in South Africa for a number of reasons, load shedding and the pressure on our electricity grid being one.

Jeff Osborne from Gumtree Automotive explains, “Plugging an electric vehicle into your home uses an amount of energy equivalent to adding three houses to the grid. Whereas a modest home draws about 3000 watts of energy at most, some electric vehicles can draw 16,800 watts off a fast charger.”

What about the praise that electric cars are environmentally friendly? Because South Africa uses coal to generate electricity, this added pressure to the power grid means electric cars won’t really make much of a difference in reducing one’s carbon footprint if driven in South Africa.

An interesting article by the Business Insider compared the cost of driving an electric car versus the cost of driving a standard car run on petrol. It concluded that the cost of running an electric car off of electricity came in much cheaper than the cost of running a car on the price on petrol.

However, electric cars are much more expensive than many budget-friendly fuel-efficient cars and the difference in price of car may in some cases outweigh the savings on fuel over a few years (the Nissan Leaf, cheaper than the BMW i3, has a selling price of around half a million Rand).

Added to this, the cost of charging an electric car might be cheaper than filling it up with fuel but it certainly takes much longer than a quick pit stop at the garage. It can take anywhere between 8-12 hours to recharge your electric car if you do not have the deep pockets to afford a rapid charging station that can charge an electric car in 3 hours but comes at the steep price of R25, 000 and an added pressure to the electricity grid.

If the environment is the concern, we might very well consider solar energy but this is also an area that remains unexplored in South Africa, a country that experiences sunshine almost every day of the year.

According to Osborne, “There is some talk of powering charging stations via solar panels, but this is largely untested, as quick charging draws huge currents. An electric car is only as clean as the grid.”

While electric cars may be the future and moves are being made by big names in the industry to make this more of a reality in South Africa, electric cars don’t seem to be a feasible option in the near future.

We should certainly start considering alternatives to lessen the impact of climate change but a lack of infrastructure both in terms of electricity supply and in terms of access to charging stations coupled with the price of electronic cars gives us something to think about next time Eskom decides to cut the power.

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