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German government pushes electric cars

But experts say electric vehicles are not the most efficient way to conserve energy.

An electric car made by Mini is seen during its presentation in Berlin, Aug. 19, 2009. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

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.