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Is Berlin en route to an e-future?

With China boasting the first city to have a public transport system running entirely on electricity, Berlin might be leading the e-mobility charge in Germany but worldwide it's lagging behind. We investigate the big e-buzz.

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E-scooters are everywhere and the BVG have launched their new e-buses – but does that mean Berlin is en route to full e-mobilisation?

Like blockchain or virtual reality, e-mobility has long been touted as “the next big thing” and held up as the revolution progressive minds should embrace as we move towards a better, emission-free future. However, scooting-fun aside, the hype doesn’t seem to have that much of an impact on our day-to-day lives. But as politicians, car manufacturers, and the sharing-economy try to sell us their e-revolution, is this about to change?

BVG goes E

Earlier this year on March 27, at a BVG depot in Wedding, Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) and Federal Environmental Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) joined two Berlin Senators as the public transit authority proudly presented the first delivered of the 30 new yellow all-electric buses they had purchased the previous year from Polish company Solaris and Mercedes Benz. As of August, these 30 buses have been put into service on the 142 and 347 lines, mixed in with the BVG’s traditional diesel buses. Other routes will also be e-updated, such as the brand new 300 line, running between the Philharmonie and the Warschauer Straße S-Bahn station, and the popular 200 line. By 2021, a total of 225 e-buses are expected to be gliding around the city streets. It might not sound like much, but these new buses represent the first steps of an ambitious mobility strategy, kicked off by Berlin’s Rot-Rot-Grün coalition government last year, to improve the city’s air quality and climate sustainability. The city government aims to completely electrify the BVG’s current fleet of some 1500 buses by the year 2030, as part of the country’s wider ‘Verkehrswende’, or the big ‘mobility turn’ that calls for a switch from fossil fuel to electricity-powered engines and a better integration of public and private commuting. “This brings us closer to our goal of making transport environmentally and climate friendly” Federal Environment Minister Schulze explained. “Because electric buses have three clear advantages: they are CO2-free, low in emissions and significantly quieter.”

Plugging in

As alluded to by Minister Schulze, e-mobility promises environmental advantages: without sputtering diesel or petrol combustion engines around, local air becomes cleaner. But more significantly, with the tandem ‘Energiewende’, which is transitioning Germany to an electricity system based entirely on renewable sources, e-mobility paves the way for the complete decarbonisation of the transportation sector.

Early this year, German media reported that, for the first time ever, renewable energy (solar, wind, water and biomass) made up more than 40 percent of the overall energy mix. What’s more, the government has pledged to close all coal fired plants by 2038. Transportation makes up 18 percent of Germany’s overall CO2 emissions, and the sector has been responsible for similarly high levels of emissions for the past 25 years. If Germany is going to meet its Paris climate goals, those emissions are going to have to sink to zero by 2050. So decarbonisation of the transportation sector through e-mobility is essentially required.

But with innovation, come high prices – the new electric buses the BVG has purchased are two-to-three times more expensive than traditional diesel ones. The change over is only being made possible thanks to extra funding from the German and Berlin governments (who are providing €48 million and €58 million respectively until 2021). And there are some technical challenges, too. The traditional diesel buses can travel up to 420km per day and can be used around the clock. The e-buses only have a range of 150 to 230km before they need to be charged again – a procedure taking up to four hours, which the BVG are trying to bring down with the new ‘High Power Charging’ technology.

Christian Hochfeld, executive director of Agora Verkehrswende, a think-tank which deals with achieving sustainable transport, thinks that, despite the challenges e-mobility poses in general, Berlin is especially lagging behind. “Compared to other German cities, Berlin is okay,” he says, “but compared to other cities across the world, we are very slow.” He points out that nine percent of the world’s 420,000 odd electric buses are operated in China. The 12-million-inhabitant megacity of Shenzhen for example has managed to electrify its entire 17,000 bus fleet in just a few years, making it the world’s first city with a public transport system run entirely on electricity. Meanwhile, according to a recent report released by Bloomberg, all of Europe only has 2250 electric buses in operation.

And it’s not just with buses that Germany is behind. Ironically for a country that prides itself on the car, Germany is also behind on the electrification of the automobile. Back in 2010 Angela Merkel made the official target of having a million electric cars on the road by the year 2020. But with only 83,000 registered electric cars in Germany at the start of 2019, the nation of cars is set to miss that goal by an order of magnitude. Here in Berlin, of the 1.2 million registered cars as of January 1, only around 2700 are electric according to the Kraftfahrtbundessamt, the federal office for motor traffic. While Berlin idles, European cities like Oslo, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris and London are leading the ‘charge’.

“We discussed this for some time and then the salesman asked me where exactly I live. I told him Prenzlauer Berg and he said, ‘Oh, there you don’t have a charging solution. Then I would buy a gasoline engine car instead!”

Reaching for renewables

One of the reasons why relatively few drivers in Berlin have been opting for electric cars is the lack of a proper charging infrastructure. Currently there are only about 500 public charging points in Berlin, with around 150 charging processes per day. And Berliners overwhelmingly live in apartments that don’t come with garages where they can easily charge overnight. “So instead we need a public charging infrastructure to make people confident that they are able to charge their cars,” Hochfeld argues. He encountered the charging issue first-hand, when he went to the showroom of a car maker and told the salesman that he was interested in buying an electric vehicle. “We discussed this for some time and then the salesman asked me where exactly I live. I told him Prenzlauer Berg and he said, ‘Oh, there you don’t have a charging solution. Then I would buy a gasoline engine car instead!”

On top of the lack of charging stations, the high purchase price is also a factor. Even with a €4000 tax rebate, electric cars are on average still thousands of euros more expensive than their petrol counterparts, and for significantly less range. German car makers have also been slow to plan, develop and offer electric vehicles to consumers. VW only has two electric cars for sale, the e-golf and eup, hardly the stars among their dozens of conventional gas models. And BMW currently only offers consumers the i3, which, with a range of around 300km, will set you back €38,000. A test by German automobile club ADAC showed that operational prices per kilometre are about the same as those of petrol-fuelled cars and marginally more expensive than those of diesel ones – to say the least, e-cars are not financially attractive.

But the paltry offering looks set to change. At the beginning of this year, new EU CO2 regulations were put in place which mandated European car makers reduce the overall emissions of the cars they sell by 37.5 percent by 2030 (compared to 2021 emissions) – a higher target than car-happy Germany wanted. Reducing CO2 emissions by that much is a huge task and according to Hochfeld car makers have understood they will only be able to meet these regulations if they drastically turn to electrifying their vehicles. So far, VW announced that by 2040, their last car with a combustion engine will roll off the assembly line, and that the company has committed to investing €44 billion in electromobility. Similar moves have also been made by Daimler, and with a new electric-enthusiastic CEO taking the helm this summer, BMW may make comparable commitments soon. And the private investments are accompanied by public interest – the Senat has pledged to tackle the charging problem with an office solely assigned to coordinating the installation of Berlin’s charging infrastructure. Then again, according to the Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection, not more than 400 additional charging stations will be installed by the end of 2020.

“We should be careful in thinking that e-mobility is an easy solution to our big and complex traffic problems”

The dark side of e-power

Ironically, electromobility doesn’t come without an impact on the environment either. One of the challenges posed by the production of the latest generation of lithium ion batteries is the mining of cobalt. Currently, cobalt is imported from places like the Congo, where mines often operate under gross human rights and appalling environmental conditions, poisoning land and air around them. The other problem is energy. The manufacturing of the batteries requires significant amounts of energy, and therefore CO2 emissions, to the extent that, if you were to just consider the merits of a car in the showroom, petrol cars look quite good by comparison. But despite the footprint needed to produce their batteries initially, electric cars are, over the course of their average lifetimes, already more sustainable than their combustion equivalents.

That being said, achieving the ‘Verkehrswende’ is not as easy as just switching everything to electric cars. “We should be careful in thinking that e-mobility is an easy solution to our big and complex traffic problems” cautions Janna Aljets, an expert in sustainable transportation at the Rosa- Luxemburg-Stiftung in Brussels. “When we look at our current traffic system, we’re not only talking about emissions, we are also talking about space – in general, we have too many cars!” Christian Hochfeld agrees. “Changing to e-cars will help us bring down the CO2 emissions from the transportation sector. But it won’t solve the larger problems we have, such as the resources and raw materials needed for the batteries… Instead, transport needs to be shifted away from the private car and to more climate friendly transport modes like public transport and railway” – a proposal with which Janna Aljets readily agrees. But how is this transition in car-loving Germany to be brought about? “In order to push the car out of our city, we need push and pull factors,” explains Janna Aljet. “We need to provide a good cycling infrastructure, improve public transport and make it free or very affordable. These are the things which convince people to actually change their habits. You basically need to make a really good offer.”

Bright alternatives

In that respect there are a few bright spots. Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin, has at least floated the idea of making an annual BVG pass available for just €1 per day, and BVG passes for school kids are free as of this year. And as anyone who has recently biked down Karl-Marx-Straße will have noticed, the Berlin Senate’s mobility strategy includes brand new bike lanes. Also, the German railway, Deutsche Bahn, fames itself as the world leader in sustainable e-mobility, with nearly two thirds of its track network electrified. Fifty-seven percent of all of that electricity propelling trains across the country comes from renewable energy, and Deutsche Bahn has set the goal for that number to climb to 80 percent by 2030 and for their operations to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. There’s also been increasing talk across party lines of lowering the VAT on train travel, and increasing the taxes on jet fuel, as a way of nudging behaviour towards more climate-friendly city-hopping.

Meanwhile in Berlin – as anyone who has almost tripped over a scooter in Mitte this summer knows – the ways to get from point A to B have exploded with new forms of mobility. There are currently 10 car-sharing services in the city, close to that many bikesharing services, two electric sitting scooters sharing-services, four standing scooter services, plus the two popular car-sharing services offered by Clevershuttle (whose electric vehicles run with 100 percent renewable electricity) and BVG’s BerlKönig. As for the U-Bahn and tram lines, they’ve been running on renewable energy since 2014. All that put together, and it seems like the mobility revolution is not far off, making it easier than ever to get around without a privately-owned car. So next time you’re about to board the noisy M41 bus, or grab a diesel-powered taxi, just think twice – there might be an impressively quiet and entirely carbon-neutral vehicle waiting for you – just around the corner!