COVID-19 could spark new opportunities for EV industry
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Mar 20, 2020
Emma Jarratt

Coronavirus is causing global chaos, but amid the noise there is optimism and expectation about the future of electrification

Coronavirus is causing global chaos, but amid the noise there is optimism and expectation about the future of electrification

Despite the current gloomy climate, is there a silver lining in the COVID-19 shutdowns? 

The global population is taking a forced pause from daily life and disruption of the status quo is showcasing potential benefits of a zero-emission society.

“The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is a combination of two characters: danger and opportunity,” says Daniel Breton, CEO of Electric Mobility Canada, one of several Canadian leaders Electric Autonomy spoke to for this story.

“People in this industry have to take this crisis as an opportunity”

Daniel Breton, CEO, Electric Mobility Canada

“To me, people in this industry have to take this crisis as an opportunity.”

Many EV stakeholders encourage the sector to view this time as a lemons into lemonade situation: there will be a future post-pandemic and the EV industry can leverage its momentum to ensure it not only survives COVID-19, but thrives.

Keeping EVs on the policy agenda

“Governments can use the current situation to step up their climate ambitions and launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean energy technologies…we need to seize the opportunity to help accelerate them,” International Energy Agency executive director, Fatih Birol, wrote in a statement addressing coronavirus’s impact on clean energy initiatives.

COVID-19 is dominating government focus, but stakeholders worldwide are making sure the climate file stays on legislator’s desks and the upward trajectory of the EV industry continues.

The first test of Canadian government resolve will come with the unveiling of the 2020 federal budget, which had been expected to contain significant EV incentives.

“We expect the federal and provincial governments to provide stimulus funding to support the economy, and to continue key programs,” says Travis Allan, VP of public affairs for EV charging network FLO.

“This is not the time for a timid response.”

If the Trudeau government follows through on its green agenda despite the pandemic, it would signal Canada is committed to the long view on energy and standing by its global partners – come what may.

Maintaining adoption momentum

In January, Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Colin McKerracher predicted, “By the end of 2020, there should be 10 million EVs on the road. We expect global passenger EV sales to come in at around 2.5 million for 2020, up about 20% from 2019.”

April, May and June are the busiest sales months for cars. Now, with factory shutdowns across Asia, Europe and North America, retail closures and global supply chain disruption straining every company – electric or otherwise – forecasters are tamping down their initial adoption predictions.

There is no denying the impacts of the pandemic are being felt throughout the auto sector. “The expectation is that it’s going to be very tough,” says David Adams, president of Global Automakers of Canada.

It’s not all necessarily bad for EVs though.

“The fundamental drivers of the EV industry remain strong… None of that changes because of a temporary slowdown”

Travis Allan, VP Public Affairs and General Counsel, FLO

With the buying block moving later into the year or spreading out over many more months, EV manufacturers get time to address COVID-related supply chain disruptions and build up inventory to better meet demand than in previous years. 

More supply runway and the perennial social and environmental benefits of EVs may be enough to keep adoption rates on track, says Allan.

“It’s still early to make predictions about the final impact of COVID-19, but the fundamental drivers of the EV industry remain strong: EVs are better for air quality, better for our climate, have superior performance and are typically less expensive to operate than ICE vehicles. None of that changes because of a temporary slowdown.”

Continuing education

A critical step to be taken while COVID-19 unfolds is maintaining education about EVs. With millions of people staying home in a bid to “flatten the curve”, the EV awareness industry has an unusually captive audience.

“One thing that we can do in these times while everyone is home is continue to raise awareness: education, webinars, social media – whatever we can do to keep the interest up,” says Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug’n Drive, a non-profit supporting the adoption of EVs.

From the beginning, the EV community existed, at least in part, online. From charging apps to tech support and even maintenance calls, drivers have enjoyed virtual support from their peers and providers. This may give the industry an advantage while riding out the COVID storm.

“We’re not stopping the work we are doing, we are just changing how we meet”

Wilf Steimle, President, EV Society

“We are not letting this defeat our efforts and our work,” says Wilf Steimle, president of Electric Vehicle Society, an owners’ advocacy group. 

Steimle says the society – like several other EV interest groups in Canada – is simply moving its EV community into the digital space for the time being. Online discussion forums, public education resources and information will maintain the real-world vibrancy of the EV community while prioritizing safety.

“We’re not stopping the work we are doing, we are just changing how we meet,” says Steimle.

Climate change and EVs inextricably linked for governments

Despite the high cost of containing and treating the pandemic, climate change remains a key focus in international policy and transition to EVs are a significant element of that.

A byproduct of COVID-19 may be that the public has even more reason to push their respective governments towards total electrification.

Social media is widely circulating pictures of clear canals in Venice and blue skies in China; showing the results of just a few weeks of fossil fuel reduction.

There could also be a new health argument for EVs; recent medical literature is linking air pollution to higher mortality rates from COVID-19. 

Additionally, Stanford University researcher, Marshall Burke, used data to estimate that over 52,000 lives may have been saved this year in China due to a fall in air pollution from COVID lockdowns.

The full impact of a global reduction in air pollution won’t be known for some time, but real world numbers (which, without COVID, never would have been available) show that eliminating fossil fuels will save lives possibly into the hundreds of thousands each year.

“I think this is part of the evolution and this is part of the change in mentality,” says Breton. “Sometimes it takes a crisis for people to change.”

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