Electric Avenues

As the world grows more environment- and energy-conscious, electric cars seem like the transport of the future. And most Caribbean countries offer ideal conditions for their adoption, writes Shelly-Ann Inniss

Photo by Nerhuz / Shutterstock.comBarbados leads the Caribbean region in adopting environmentally friendly electric vehicles. Photo courtesy Megapower Barbados

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve cars. My father and I used to play a game called “guess that car” — down to the year of the vehicle. I wanted my own car very badly, so my parents bought me several toy versions. What I really desired was a remote-controlled car, but that was an extravagance my parents didn’t indulge.

Luckily, in my adult years, technology has exponentially evolved. Now those remote-controlled cars have morphed into full-fledged stylish, economical, fast, smart, road-worthy electric vehicles — minus the remote and with a much bigger battery — and they seem ideal for the Caribbean, due to the size of our islands and our abundant renewable energy resources, like sunlight.

Pure or one-hundred-per-cent electric vehicles (EVs) are powered by energy stored in their rechargeable batteries, or other energy storage devices. Fundamentally, engines, gas tanks, oil filters, and tail pipes are non-existent in these vehicles, which makes EVs one of the cleanest forms of transport. No more changing of gears, either. With electricity comes acceleration, and it’s instant, smooth, and exhilarating.

Some people have “range anxiety,” and worry about running out of battery power before reaching their destination — but the drive range of an average EV is approximately one hundred miles on a single charge. Given the average mileage on daily commutes and the size of most Caribbean islands, a full charge may last up to three days. It also costs less to recharge than to fill up at the gas pump, and the added value is that there’s little maintenance cost over the lifetime of the vehicle — the only servicing these vehicles need is tyre alignment, changing the wipers, and new batteries every six to eight years. Some Caribbean drivers have already become early adopters of these cars, and it’s possible they won’t even check their rear-view mirrors to see what the old internal combustion engine vehicle is up to.

In 2009, Cayman Automotive pioneered the presence of EVs in the Caribbean. They also fostered EV rentals as a tourism product in the Cayman Islands. From there, the rest of the Caribbean gradually took interest, thus leading to the first-ever Caribbean International Electric Auto show in 2012, hosted in Cayman. Almost like passing the baton in a relay, other islands began running with the idea, researching and putting measures in place to introduce these vehicles. Today you’ll also find EVs in Aruba, Trinidad, Grenada, St Vincent, Montserrat, Cuba, Bermuda, St Lucia, Guyana, and the Bahamas. And currently leading the way, with over 160 privately owned EVs, is Barbados. At the 2015 Caricom energy conference, it was announced that Barbados is ranked sixth in the world in percentage of EVs relative to total vehicles in the country.

Barbados is just 166 square miles, hence making an encounter with an EV, or one of the thirty-nine available charging stations, almost inevitable. Joanna Edghill, managing director of Megapower, believes Barbados and the islands of the OECS don’t have an argument for hybrid vehicles — a cross between an EV and a gas-fuelled vehicle — like larger countries. Megapower is Barbados’s only specialist EV garage, and is considered an infrastructure expert, over and above EVs — especially with their advanced solar carports. Their concept is to offset the charging of EVs with renewable energy: the net effect is to pump sufficient solar power into the grid to offset pulling electricity from it. The solar energy generated using this method can reduce your electricity bill or reward you with credits.

Grenada Electricity Services Ltd (Grenlec), in partnership with Megapower and supported by the Grenada government, embarked on an EV pilot project in September 2015, to obtain relevant data on the use of EVs in their local environment. Preliminary data show savings of fifty per cent of the cost of gas. And although the power plant that generates electricity does produce emissions, EVs operate at a much higher efficiency, and therefore produce fewer pollutants than gas-powered vehicles.

 

Towards the shift to sustainable transport, other governments are actively encouraging EVs as a viable option, either waiving the import duty and VAT, or reducing motor vehicle taxes. According to Edghill, the Barbados government has even purchased two Nissan Leaf EVs as part of a pilot project. Five years after its introduction, the Leaf became the world’s bestselling pure EV by surpassing two hundred thousand vehicles in December 2015. In Barbados, the cost of a brand new Leaf ranges from US$30,000 to US$33,000 before duties and taxes.

On the other side of the track, Trinidad and Tobago may be a “backmarker” with EVs, thanks to subsidised gas. T&T’s National Gas Company also recently invested TT$150 million in compressed natural gas (CNG) infrastructure: the construction of CNG stations, the conversion of vehicles to CNG, and public education and marketing. With over eight hundred thousand licensed vehicles on Trinidad and Tobago’s roads, approximately four thousand are CNG vehicles — including thirty-five buses owned by the Public Transport Service Corporation. So EVs may be not be a high priority on the T&T government’s agenda at the moment — but the Trinidad-based company Smart Energy believes that CNG vehicles will soon be surpassed by EVs.

Smart Energy CEO Ian Smart is adamant that renewable technology is the way of the future. His company launched EVs in Trinidad by introducing the Tesla. Costing upwards of US$100,000, these are sleek, high-end, luxurious EVs with advanced features like auto-pilot, automatic software updates, and other innovative technology. “I’m not sure the world fully recognised what Tesla meant when they said their cars are full robots that can drive themselves,” says Kurt Valley, a sales executive at Smart Energy. He compared this world-changing development to when the Internet was first designed and people didn’t know what it could lead to.

At present, EVs are making a parade lap, as people become more aware of their environmental benefits. Since the Paris Agreement on climate change has become international law — putting caps on global emissions and establishing guidelines for international collaboration — it’s probable there’ll soon be a greater demand for EVs. Here in the Caribbean, Caricom continues to develop policies for sustainable transport. And with government support — and perhaps the incorporation of EVs as public service vehicles — there’s a strong chance that within the next decade these vehicles will be widespread in our region, gradually pushing old-fashioned internal combustion vehicles to the back of the lot. It certainly seems like EVs are in the fast lane, driving towards a brighter, cleaner future.