If you live in west Manchester and have a plug-in electric car, one of the few places you can charge it is the Irlam and Cadishead leisure centre. But since the public point was installed a year ago, only one car has used it, according to centre manager Natalie Wareham.
That may soon change. Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show that, while there was just a handful of electric cars on the road three years ago, there are now nearly 10,000, with 1,200 electric vehicles sold in March, compared with 270 in the same month last year. Meanwhile 10,200 hybrid cars – using electricity and petrol or diesel – have been sold in Britain this year, up 45% on last year.
Since 2011, when the government gave a £5,000 grant towards every pure electric car sold, number have been growing, say the carmakers, which now offer 18 models, from the Nissan Leaf, made in Sunderland, to sports cars, estates, vans and other hatchbacks.
“The market is approaching a tipping point, where battery power will become as normal as petrol or diesel,” said Ian Robertson, BMW’s global marketing chief. “If you look back over the past three years, the electric car market has multiplied by a factor of 25.”
“There’s no doubt that it’s coming and it’s coming quickly and there is legislation supporting this in many cities.”
A spokesman for the Department for Transport agreed: “The uptake is gathering pace. The last quarter saw a record number of plug-in grants – double the previous quarter, which was itself a record. More than six times as many grants were issued this January as in January 2013.”
Most carmakers expect pure electric cars to account for 2%-3% of the market by 2020, said Jay Nagley, head of vehicle consultancy Redspy. “People who buy them are very happy with them. Everyone knows about their range limitation, but owners become quite evangelical. Year by year, battery packs are improving. A huge amount of money is being invested in the new generation of batteries.”
The rewards for carmakers who break into the global market with a popular electric car are huge. With one in 12 deaths worldwide linked to air pollution, and with most countries committed to reducing emissions, there is growing awareness by governments and industry of the need for low- or zero-emission vehicles.
But despite encouraging sales figures and investments by companies such as Nissan, Britain is lagging far behind other developed countries. More than 400,000 electric vehicles are on the roads worldwide, four times more than in 2011. The US has by far the largest fleet, with more than 194,000 sold since 2008. Japan has 74,000 and in the Netherlands and Denmark they account for 5% of the total car market. In Norway, where 20% of all cars sold are electric, it is getting harder to find unoccupied public charging facilities.
Last week the UK government committed a further £500m to developing electric cars and other low-carbon vehicles. The £5,000 grant will continue for two years, and £100m will be spent on research and £50m on clean buses and taxis. A further £5m will be spent on electric cars for government officers.
“It’s still early days for electric cars in Britain,” said Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, an energy company that has installed more than 100 free charging points in motorway service stations. “There has been a bit of a chicken and egg situation – the lack of charging infrastructure put people off buying electric cars, but the infrastructure wasn’t being built because there weren’t enough vehicles on the road. Last year we powered more than 500,000 miles of electric travel; this year, we will double that and … we expect it is only going to increase.”