Electric vehicle industry getting momentum in SA

Opinion article first published in Business Day


South Africa lagged behind rapid global developments in electric mobility, but has the opportunity to catch up. There are calls for policies to be aligned, industry is collaborating with government, and markets are ready for a step change in green transport, says Carel Snyman. South Africa’s pioneering past in electric vehicles (EV) is not widely recognised.

One of the primary technologies in EVs today is the rechargeable lithium ion battery developed by Dr Michael Thackeray and a team of CSIR scientists in the 1970s. The CSIR’s sodium nickel chloride cell, known as Zebra (Zero Emissions Batteries Research Activity), was patented around the same time.

Yet South Africa no longer contributes meaningfully to this fundamental part of the EV technology value chain. Dr Thackeray is now a senior researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, where he has contributed to the discovery of new battery materials, some licenced internationally.

The Zebra battery is manufactured in Switzerland and features in a solar electric bus in Australia. It is imported into SA under the FAAM brand name and still considered one of the most reliable high temperature batteries.

Another example of South Africa’s past contribution to electric mobility is the development of an all-electric family car by Optimal Energy. The Joule was well received in 2008 at the Paris Motor Show but never commercialised because investors saw it as too risky. Production stopped in 2012.
Other SA entrepreneurs are pushing ahead with electric mobility innovations. CSIR-based GridCars is developing a three-wheel two-seater commuter car with an 80km range, and a light electric utility vehicle with potential for small businesses to provide services such as waste removal and local transport of goods.

Pretoria firm 2Life says it will in 2017 manufacture two and four-seater neighbourhood EVs with 80% local parts. Also in its pipeline are an all-terrain EV and six seaters for airports and the hospitality industry. These innovations aim to move people and freight at a fraction of today’s cost.

Local EV entrepreneurs are also tackling the public transport sector, with a small electric people transporter being built by Mellowcabs.
Developing electric cars or becoming experts in parts of the EV value chain are clearly within South Africans’ grasp.
Yet the statistics show how slow we have been to enter the EV market.

After three years of rapid global growth, there are now more than a million electric vehicles in use worldwide. There could be 20 million by 2020, based on current rate of sales.

China has become the biggest EV market with an estimated 400,000 EVs in 2016, an eight-fold increase in two years. The USA’s EV market swelled by 50% to 150,000 in the same period. Twenty per cent more EVs were sold in Europe this year than in 2015, with EVs now accounting for 30% of new vehicle sales.

SA represents 0.8 percent of vehicle registrations globally so our share of the EV market should be as high as 8,000. Our current battery electric vehicle fleet, however, is only at a disappointing 500 cars, a fraction of the seven million light vehicles on our roads.
End of the petrol era

In vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, more than 60% of energy generated is lost as heat, with just 15% converted to motion.
The polluting effect of fossil fuels spells the end of the car as we know it, and future mobility will be very different. It won’t be an easy change; not for the manufacturers so invested in the technology, or the motoring public.
However, the time for change is overdue.

This presents a window of opportunity for SA to stimulate industrial development while reducing oil imports, saving foreign exchange and creating jobs. All while improving air quality in cities and tackling the threat of climate change.
Government and industry now recognise the need to act. In early December (5.12.16) the Electric Vehicle Industry Association (EVIA) was launched in Johannesburg as a consortium of policy makers, city officials, industry and academics.

EVIA members aim to accelerate and coordinate clean transport in SA, boosting investor confidence in the sector, and helping government meet commitments to reduce emissions.

There is no time to waste. The longer we hold back, the more we will rely on other countries for innovative transport solutions while we continue to burn fossil fuels, waste energy, increase pollution and contribute to climate change.The absence of industrial and consumer incentives is significantly responsible for SA’s slow adoption. More favourable policy is urgently needed, including priority support for local industries which create mobility systems adapted to African conditions.Bert Witkamp, secretariat of the Europe EV industry association, AVERE, told the EVIA launch that incentives were vital to the continent’s most significant change in mobility for a hundred years.

In markets like California or Norway, cash incentives of up to R100,000 drop the capital cost of new EVs to below the fossil fuel equivalent. EV owners then enjoy priority parking, use of bus lanes, and exemption from road tax and tolls. In Ireland, EV uptake is encouraged by a €5,000 grant towards purchase of new electric cars.
In SA, by contrast, we penalise aspirant EV owners with a 43% tax (25% import tax and 18% ad valorem), which puts electric mobility out of reach. This is absurd, given government’s supposed commitment to clean energy, green transport and development of new industrial sectors.

The right incentives need to flow from the sensible alignment of policy by departments responsible for energy, transport, cities and industry. SA government does now fortunately appear to be on the brink of providing supportive e-mobility policies.

The introduction of new energy vehicles typically covers the affairs of more than one department. The UK’s solution was to create an Office of Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV), with representatives of different ministries.

Bold measures are required. Norway has decreed that all new cars will be electric by 2025. Paris, Mexico City, Athens and other cities plan to ban diesel vehicles from their city centres in a bid to reduce pollution.

This should be an inspiration to SA’s government, and the public who must be persuaded to say goodbye to fossil fuels.
Coordinated development of charging infrastructure is also required. In Ireland, national fast charging infrastructure is being installed every 50km, and Europe is developing fast charging corridors.

SA’s charging infrastructure is still in demonstration phase and our current approach is to develop infrastructure at a municipal level rather than nationally. EV infrastructure is part of the climate action plan for Tshwane, which already boasts two solar-powered EV charging stations. The city is encouraging developers to put solar charging stations into malls. In Cape Town, 15 electric buses will soon be added to the MyCiti fleet.
Among the commitments of EVIA’s members is a mass campaign of consumer awareness of clean energy options, leading to a new appetite for alternate forms of transport.

Government support for EVs will stimulate new economic opportunities, reduce pollution and meet climate commitments.
It’s time we built on our illustrious past in the electric vehicle sector, not ignored it.

Snyman is head of the green mobility programme at the SA National Energy Development Institute and SA director of the SA Low Carbon Transport programme of the UN Industrial Development Organisation. He drives an electric vehicle.

Electric Vehicle Industry Association (EVIA) factsheet

  • The Electric Vehicle Industry Association (EVIA) is a national consortium of public and private sector organisations.
  • EVIA will promote clean mobility in South Africa by supporting the development of electric vehicle (EV) policies and regulations, promoting and integrating EV technologies, developing charging infrastructure and creating consumer awareness of electric vehicles (EVs).
  • Seven EVIA working groups will focus on different areas of E-mobility including charging infrastructure, batteries and recycling, policies, and sustainable driving and living.
  • The founding members of EVIA are BMW SA, Nissan SA, GridCars, the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).
  • EVIA will work closely with national government departments including dti, transport, science and technology, and environment


  •  In the 1970s, South Africa led the world in battery research. Core technology on lithium ion batteries suitable for EVs was developed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) through a research project funded by Anglo American.
  • The CSIR developed the Zebra (Zero Emissions Batteries Research Activity) battery. This molten-Sodium Chloride battery was patented in 1978 and later commercialised in conjunction with Daimler. At this time the CSIR’s Dr Mike Thackeray made breakthroughs in Manganese-rich Lithium-ion chemistry that greatly helped advance Lithium-ion batteries towards commercial use.
  •  Since 2011, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has been supporting a lithium-ion battery key programme. Its aim is for local production of the batteries at competitive costs based on South African raw materials and intellectual property.

Policy, programmes and strategy
Various government departments have policies, programmes and strategies to promote the adoption of EVs and associated technologies:

  • A priority in the dti’s Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) is a project to facilitate and promote the introduction of EVs. It aims to create spin-off opportunities for new businesses supporting the industry through recharging infrastructure and energy storage components (batteries). This will be done under the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) Low Carbon Transport project (LCT-SA).
  •  LCT-SA promotes the widespread use of EVs and non-motorised transport as part of the country’s green transport and green cities initiatives, which facilitate local manufacturing and the development of infrastructure for cleaner mobility.
  •  A green transport strategy is being developed as part of the Department of Transport’s Integrated Transport Plan. It aims to minimise the impact of transport on the environment and address current and future transport demands based on sustainable development.
  •  The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) launched the Green Cars (ZERO Emission Electric Vehicles) programme in February 2013. It will ensure South Africa contributes to the reduction of environmentally harmful emissions by promoting cleaner sources of fuel by the automotive industry. The Green Fund has been established to support the transition to low-carbon development.


  • South Africa is ranked among the world’s top 12 largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters. Greenhouse gas emissions totalled 579 million tons CO2 equivalent in 2010 (DEA 2013).

Under the Copenhagen Accord, South Africa committed to cut emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025.

The largest obstacle to lithium ion battery technology is the cost and performance of the batteries. The focus of much of the battery industry is on producing batteries with high energy and power at an appropriate cost for consumers.

The limited availability of charging infrastructure is one of the biggest current obstacles to the widespread adoption of EVs by motorists who suffer from ‘range anxiety’.

  • Concern that the concentration of EVs all charging at peak time could cause electricity disruptions and congestions.
  •  There are well understood reasons for the slow uptake of EVs in South Africa. Winstone Jordaan of GridCars says legislation is needed in three key areas to encourage the sector.
    • Homologation – The products need to meet regulatory standards and specifications such as safety and technical requirements.
    • Incentives – There are no tax rebates, financial incentives or other subsidies to encourage consumers to buy EVs.
    • Political will – There’s a lack of political will on the part of government to demonstrate the viability of the technology and promote EVs.

EV potential

  •  EVs can be used to send power back to the grid when the demand is high. EVs can also be used to power appliances at residence or businesses during times of high electricity demand or in emergency situations.
  • The CSIR’s Energy Centre is tackling challenges in energy storage. It is developing systems to integrate electric vehicles into energy infrastructure. Researchers are working to improve the integration of energy storage into the grid to absorb and balance fluctuations.
  • The uYilo E-Mobility Technology Innovation Programme (EMTIP) EV systems laboratory checks the compatibility of EV products from global suppliers in order to speed up the development and deployment of electric vehicle technologies into South Africa.

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