BY PETER WANYONYI
Many arguments have been made– including in this column – about the pros and cons of electric vehicles (EVs) alongside, or as a replacement for, traditional vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs). These arguments have revolved around the economic and technological case for EVs:
The range capability of EVs is a problem, with most unable to provide the sort of range that ICE vehicles enjoy. The most critical issue with EVs, though, is the lack of refill – or rather, recharge – infrastructure.First, the context of the issue. Kenya, like all other African countries, does not manufacture cars. We import all our cars.
These are sourced from two main markets: the vast Japanese second-hand car market, and the smaller European market. Japanese cars in Kenya tend to be of the used variety, though there’s a small but highly lucrative trade in new Japanese cars, dominated by two or three well-known Japanese brands. European cars sold in Kenya tend to be high-end German marques acquired mosty by our corrupt ruling classes when they want to show off their wealth and emphasise the gap in means between themselves and the rest of us.
It follows, then, that what happens in the Japanese and European car markets directly affects us – the car choices that Japanese consumers are making today will become the car alternatives that Kenyans have before them tomorrow. If Japan stops manufacturing ICE cars today, Kenya will have to find a new source of used cars in about 3 years’ time. We – and the rest of Africa – are that tightly coupled to the Japanese car market. And in Europe and Japan, today, there’s one unmistakeable trend in the car industry: politics and market demand are pushing carmakers into abandoning ICE vehicles and producing EVs instead.
That has extensive ramifications for Kenya and Africa in general. Seven years from now, the number of EVs on Kenyan roads will be quite high, as second-hand EVs and plug-in hybrids from Japan and Europe flood the used-car markets of the region. This is great from an environmental perspective, but the big elephant in the corner is this: how will our electricity grid cope with all those EVs? Kenya’s economy is lopsided: the majority of economic activities in Kenya happen during daylight. This is for a good reason – our electricity grid is rubbish, and we cannot assure customers of a dependable supply of electricity at night. We thus work mainly during the day when lighting is free from the sun, and at night we retire to bed. The lost productivity potential of a 24-hour economy aside, this means that we drive our cars to work mainly in the mornings, and drive back home mainly in the evenings. If we transition to EVs, this means that all our electric cars will be plugged in to recharge at exactly the same time across the country – overnight. And this is where the problems begin.
EV mass production is expected to begin in 2019 in Japan and Europe, and the EVs sold next year and in 2020 in those markets will then hit the second-hand car market in Kenya and Africa about 3 years later, in 2022-2023. They will significantly increase the load on our electricity network. Today,our network regularly falls over. Load-shedding ripples across the Nairobi night sky like a giant Mexican wave, as consumers take it in turns to withstand the worst of our useless power distribution network. EVs will magnify this a hundred-fold: whereas the most power-hungry device in a typical Kenyan home, the hot-water cylinder, draws just 3 kilowatts of power at peak demand, even the smallest EV will draw at least 7 kilowatts during charging. Power demand in Nairobi and other cities will more than double, and consumers will see bills that are twice or thrice the current levels. We cannot cope with that.
So, what is to be done?
First, Kenya needs to front-foot EV legislation. Our current import duty regime is based on the engine capacity of an ICE car, in cubic centimetres. The treasury defines luxury cars as those having an engine capacity beyond 2,500 cc. EVs do not have that sort of rating, and will instead be rated purely on power and range, making it difficult to define what’s luxury and what’s not. Kenya needs to pass laws that take this into account so that appropriate taxes can be levied on EV imports.
Second, the country needs to invest in charging points. Government-led efforts will be required to ensure that motorists driving around the country are within reasonable reach of EV charging points. Incentives for businesses and parking lots to set up solar-powered charging points could be a starting point. Helping homeowners buy and install solar power packs that store electricity from the sun and then charge EVs at night would help avoid crippling the grid when EVs finally arrive.
Most of all, though, motherland needs an urgent electricity network upgrade. Our network is still too creaky to be reliable even without the increased peak demand that EVs will place on it. The organisation in charge of the grid is inept, corrupt, and beholden to ethnic interests that have stood in the way of investment for ages. If we are to make the inevitable transition to EVs successfully, now is the time to begin building resilience into the electric grid and future-proofing it. But, this being Kenya, we won’t.