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Can a Robust Charging Station Network Root Electric Vehicle Culture in Estonia?

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by Morgen E. Peck

“If you build it, they will come.”

In many ways, the future of electric vehicles depends on the validity of this Hollywood catch phrase. It worked well enough in Field of Dreams, when Kevin Costner’s character wanted to lure a team of spectral baseball players to his razed cornfield in Iowa. But will building a network of fast electric charging stations lure drivers away from the wonders of the internal combustion engine? Will people really start buying electric cars? Estonia is about to find out. Last month, it became the first country to install a full network of such stations.

“Yes, we can say that Estonia is the first one who has covered the whole nation. We are a tiny country. But still!” says Jarmo Tuisk, the head of Estonia’s electromobility program known as ELMO.

It’s true. Estonia is very small. The Baltic nation is roughly twice the size of Massachusetts, and it has a population around 1.3 million, most of which lives in the two largest cities.

Estonia has speckled its highways and town roads with 165 CHAdeMO quick chargers, a type of direct current plug-in that can charge a car’s lithium battery in 30 minutes for an average cost of $3.25. Depending on the vehicle, a full charge will last for 100-200 miles of driving.  

The time it actually takes to “fill-up” can change quite a bit depending on the weather, and when it’s cold outside (which it frequently is in Estonia) a full charge can take nearly an hour, says Tuisk.

However, an Estonian need only drive 37 miles at most to find one of these stations, according to figures released by ELMO. And the organization claims that the network is comprehensive enough to service a fleet of 6,000 electric vehicles.

But will they come?

Tuisk says he is convinced that the main thing holding people back from committing to the new technology is the fear of getting stuck out on the road somewhere and that with this problem solved, drivers will slowly start to buy electric vehicles. The Estonian government is now trying to jumpstart this switch by handing out grants to individuals for the purchase of up to 500 new electric vehicles. And in 2011, the government bought itself 500 Mitsubishi i-MiEVs, which are already being driven around by social workers and other state authorities.

But sales are moving slowly. In fact, the cars Estonia bought for its social workers are just about the only ones on the road. Even though the grants cover up to $23,000 of the cost of a new electric vehicle, just over 100 people have applied. There are currently only 619 such cars registered in the country.

Tuisk says part of the problem may be that Estonians aren’t finding the kind of cars they want to buy. Sport utility vehicles are very popular in the country. And yet, production of these models is lagging far behind.

“We have been waiting for new EV models for a long time now,” says Tuisk. “I cannot overstate the importance of having EVs in various forms and segments. It’s really important for this thing to be more popular.” Perhaps that will change when Toyota unveils its new all-electric RAV4.

Informing and upgrading car buyers

Or, perhaps there’s a bigger problem. “Truth to be told, most Estonians use cars that have a release date of 1990-something,” explains Asko Nõmm, a freelance web developer in Tallinn, Estonia. “Our pay isn’t all that great to be able to afford a new car—the majority of us anyway. So we buy used cars. And those are usually very old cars. Some even date back to the 80s.”

ELMO has another program for people who cannot afford to buy a new car, or for those who are still squeamish about committing to an all-electric vehicle. This summer, they will introduce a share program in Tallinn and Tartu (the two largest cities in Estonia) that will work much the same way Zipcar does in the U.S., allowing people to find a car on the street and rent it online for a few hours or however long they need it. Tuisk says it will be a good way for people to try it out.

Even in this situation, electric vehicles will be competing for an edge with older forms of transportation, not just with gas-guzzling cars, but also with the government itself. You see, in Tallinn, public transportation is free.

“Our public transport is pure quality when it comes to comparing it with the U.S, for example,” says Nõmm. “So the only direction people are going to take, in my opinion, is the obvious—completely free public transport.”

Top Image: Screenshot of a Google map locating CHAdeMO quick chargers in Estonia.

Morgen E. Peck is a contributor to IEEE Spectrum, Innovation News Daily and Scientific American.

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