German government pushes electric cars

BERLIN, Germany — Germany has long allowed two aspects of its national identity to live in tension with one another. On the one hand, the country has a deep commitment to environmentalism; on the other, it has a passion for the often gas-guzzling products of its domestic auto industry.

Reconciling that dissonance in the national psyche may prove to be one of the achievements of Angela Merkel's second term as chancellor. Merkel has put her weight behind an initiative designed to help Germany become the world's leading developer and consumer of electric cars.

The 500 million-euro plan had been agreed to by both of Germany's major parties — the Social Democrats, as well as Merkel's Christian Democrats — in the weeks leading up to the last national election on Sept. 27, with the understanding that it would be acted upon in the following legislative session regardless of which party headed the next governing coalition.

The details will be finalized in talks with representatives from the auto industry, but the outlines of the initiative are already in place. It will likely include investment into research and development of electric car batteries, development of a national infrastructure of charging stations that would make the widespread use of electric cars possible and subsidies for Germans who purchase electric cars. The plan's stated goal is to have 1 million electric automobiles on German roads by the year 2020.

The plan was unveiled as a way to reduce the country's environmental impact, while bolstering the domestic business climate. Cars are not only a passion for Germany, but also a major part of its economy. Studies estimate that one in seven jobs in Germany are dependent on the domestic auto industry, which includes major exporters like Daimler, Audi, VW, Porsche and BMW.

Those companies have profited less from a reputation for efficiency and more for being at the leading edge of performance and comfort. The government's support of electric cars is intended to ensure that the sector maintains its competitive advantage in times when consumers are more concerned about the environment and rising oil prices.

In a speech at the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September, Merkel made clear that she was concerned about competition from Asia in the pursuit of a feasible electric car battery. “If Asian markets take over the lead role and we lose the upper hand in standardization, then we will also lose the markets,” Merkel warned.

The auto manufacturers seem motivated by the challenge. Volkswagen has announced it will release an all-electric car sometime in the next five years. Daimler, meanwhile, has invested in 100 electricity “filling stations” in Berlin.

But Merkel's plan has also faced criticism. Some say that the plan amounts to a government handout to the auto industry. They cite studies that show electric cars would have minimal impact on the environment, since any reduction in gasoline emissions would be matched, if not topped, by increases in emissions from the power plants that would produce the electricity used by the electric car batteries.

In order to change that equation, Germany would need to invest more in renewable energy, a prospect toward which Merkel has been significantly more ambivalent than have leading politicians among the Social Democrats and the Green Party.

“The campaign for electric automobiles is creating unrealistic expectations,” said Wolfgang Lohbeck, of Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy organization. “It's all supposed to distract from the possible and necessary changes to gas-powered vehicles.”

Indeed, many have pointed out that there's a strong argument to be made that the electric car initiative is less a reflection of Merkel's commitment to an environmentally friendly car culture than her closeness to the country's domestic auto industry. Until now, she has resisted what environmental advocates say is the most effective and straightforward way to reduce overall emissions: making cars that are smaller, made of lighter materials and require less energy to run in the first place.

In her first term, she worked to prevent the European Union from issuing environmental regulations on cars used in Europe, for fear such regulations would disadvantage German manufacturers. She also oversaw a “cash-for-clunkers” stimulus program that saw billions go to subsidize the purchase of new, gasoline-powered cars.

Other critics suggest that the government's initiative obscures the difficulty of moving toward wide-scale use of electric automobiles. As currently conceived, electric cars would only be appropriate for commuters who need to drive a relatively short distance: The lithium-ion car batteries that are now in development would need to be recharged after every roughly 100 miles.

By all indications, the auto manufacturers are a long way from developing an electrical fuel source that would work for longer-distance driving. Even if the manufacturers do happen upon a technological solution, the cars outfitted with such technology will likely be too pricey for most consumers. “Electric mobility is one of the most expensive ways to go about reducing carbon emissions,” said Axel Friedrich, an environmental consultant.

Certainly, it seems that German car manufacturers would be well advised to continue their research into making their gas-powered cars more fuel efficient. After all, even if 1 million electric cars were to be on German roads by 2020, that would leave another 50 million conventional cars driving alongside them.