All it took for a boom in clean transport was a pop star, forward-thinking policy and a dash of civil disobedience.
If you had a radio or watched MTV in the 1980s, chances are that the song “Take on Me” by the Norweigian synth-pop band A-ha is seared into your brain.
So sing along, “taaaake oooon meeee,” as we look at how the members of A-ha helped to lead a movement in the 1990s that persuaded Norweigian leaders to embrace electric vehicles, and how those early steps set the stage for Norway to become today’s global leader in EV market share.
Norway’s EV success got a flurry of attention this week with an ad from General Motors, broadcast during the Super Bowl, in which Will Ferrell boils over with a sense of rivalry about how badly Norway is beating the United States at getting people to drive EVs. Much has been written about the ad, and about how GM’s pivot to EVs follows a checkered history on environmental issues.
But for me, the best thing about the ad is that it calls attention to one of the most remarkable energy transition stories in the world: how a small country in Northern Europe (with fewer people than Wisconsin) has succeeded at making the transition to clean transportation to an extent that no other nation comes close to matching.
In the late-1980s, A-ha was arguably Norway’s best-known export, and some of the band’s members had a fascination with the early electric vehicles they had seen in their travels. The band, including lead singer Morten Harket, connected with Frederic Hauge, the freewheeling leader of Bellona, a Norway-based environmental group, and they began to work together to promote EVs at a time when the market was close to nonexistent.
Hauge had a tiny red EV he had imported from Sweden, a Fiat Panda, which he charged with an extension cord hanging out of his office window.
“The car, a squat triangular thing, was barely legal to drive,” wrote Charles Digges of Bellona in a 2018 essay. “The bureaucracy for registering it was a nightmare, and you could only go 45 kilometers before you had to plug it in again. Only two passengers could squeeze into it—and only if they held their breath and only if they had both skipped dinner.”
In the mid-1990s, Harket, Hauge and others staged a series of publicity stunts to promote EVs—the kind of showy civil disobedience for which Bellona was already well known. They refused to pay tolls on highways and parked illegally, and, since the drivers included some of the biggest pop stars in the country, the media covered it heavily.
The government responded by changing the law to encourage people to buy EVs. In 1996, Norway gave EVs a big break on the annual registration tax. In 1997, EVs got an exemption from road tolls. Other measures followed, including a 2001 exemption from the country’s value added tax, which sharply reduced the cost difference between EVs and gasoline vehicles. (Norway’s EV trade group has a helpful timeline.)
But the growth of incentives did not immediately lead to a boom in EV ownership. Major automakers were not producing EVs, and upstarts, like the now-defunct Norweigian company Think, could only produce the vehicles in small numbers.
In addition to a lack of electric vehicles for sale, the country also had few charging stations. The country responded with publicly financed building programs, first in Oslo, the largest city, in 2008, followed by a national program in 2009.
The combination of incentives and accessible charging stations means that when automakers began to produce more EVs in the 2010s, Norway had all the ingredients to become a major consumer.
EVs were 3 percent of the country’s new car market in 2012, which was huge at the time, and ahead of where the United States is today.
The market share has steadily increased, and crossed 50 percent of new vehicles sold in 2019, which includes all-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. The shift in the new car market is gradually changing the makeup of the country’s overall vehicle fleet, with EVs making up more than 10 percent of all the new and old vehicles on the road.
The country’s current goal, established in a 2017 plan, is to have 100 percent of new cars be EVs by 2025, a target that would be laughably unrealistic in just about any other country.
Norway’s actions have helped to turn it into a policy laboratory for the transition to EVs, said Sandra Wappelhorst of the Berlin office of the International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT.
“In general, the success story is rooted in a mix of strong national and local incentives to promote EVs … and the continuous extension of the public charging infrastructure network,” she told me.
Other countries are succeeding with their own versions of some of the policies, which the ICCT is closely tracking. For example, Denmark, France and the Netherlands have large tax benefits for EV ownership, sometimes in addition to one-time incentives for buying the vehicles.
So what does she think of the GM ad? She said it’s a good way to increase awareness of EVs in the United States and push the conversation about clean transportation into the mainstream. “And that’s a good thing,” she said.
Just a few years ago, it was difficult to imagine the United States would be inspired by Norway’s transportation policies, considering the political power of the U.S. oil industry and the foot-dragging of automakers. Also, Norway has high taxes and expensive gasoline, which gives policymakers more room to provide incentives that can effectively nudge people toward EVs.
And yet, there are signs of change in the United States. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that would ban sales of new gasoline vehicles in the state in 2035, and now GM, the largest automaker in the United States, has said it aspires to stop selling gasoline vehicles by that same year.
But I want to end in Norway, which has responded to the spotlight of the GM ad with good humor, including a rebuttal ad from the Norweigian office of Audi, the German automaker, featuring the “Game of Thrones” actor Kristofer Hivju.
With scenery-chewing intensity, Hivju says the United States should emulate Norway instead of talking trash, with the tagline, “Don’t Hate. Imitate.”
Power Providers Team Up: California’s community choice aggregators, or CCAs, have been leaders in accelerating the transition to clean energy, and now eight of them are banding together to increase their buying power, as Greentech Media reports. “Overcoming our climate crisis and making our grid clean and reliable will require the kind of strength in numbers that these eight CCAs are showcasing,” said Jan Pepper, CEO of Peninsula Clean Energy in Redwood City. The new group will serve 2.6 million homes and businesses.
Turbine Arms Race Gets a New Player: GE Renewable Energy and Siemens Gamesa have spent years one-upping each other by building ever-larger offshore wind turbines. On Wednesday, Vestas, a leading maker of land-based turbines, said it is expanding its presence in the offshore wind market by developing a 15-megawatt offshore turbine, which would be among the largest. CNBC has some of the details from this announcement that shows the growing prominence of offshore wind in the clean energy economy, and a fast-changing competitive landscape.
Ford Amps Up EV Plans: Ford said last week that it will invest $22 billion in electric vehicles between now and 2025, as Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert report for Reuters. “We are accelerating all our plans,” said Jim Farley, Ford’s CEO. While this is a big step forward for Ford’s EV ambitions, the news got buried by General Motors’ recently announced a plan that is larger—a $27 billion investment in EVs—and includes an ambition to stop selling gasoline vehicles by 2035.
Michigan Lags in EV Commitment: While General Motors and Ford look to emphasize electric vehicles, the companies’ home state has a long way to go to become a leader in clean vehicle policy. Eric D. Lawrence of the Detroit Free Press has a story about a recent report that says Michigan ranks 29th out of 50 states in the strength of laws that encourage people and businesses to use EVs. Here is the full report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, showing that first place goes to California, which is no surprise.
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