Overview and History

Gearing up to Reduce emissions

Urban energy – fuel for thought

South Africa is ranked among the world’s top 12 largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters. GHG emissions totaled 579 million tons CO2e in 2010 (DEA 2013). Under the Copenhagen Accord, South Africa committed to cut emissions by 34% from business as usual (BAU) by 2020, and by 42% by 2025. The recent Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) sets national GHG emission reduction targets of 212–428 Mt CO2e by 2050, and 398–614 Mt CO2e between 2025 and 2030 (DEA, 2015).

Cities have a key role in changing the global GHG emissions profile. GHG emissions in South Africa are dominated by the industrial sector, followed closely by the transport and by the residential sector – the latter occurring mostly in the urban areas. The major fuels consumed in metros are electricity used predominantly for lighting, heating, cooling and cooking, petrol and diesel mostly used for transport. Diesel is used for freight and passenger transport, as well for industrial applications (stationary combustion, e.g. generators). Petrol is used almost exclusively for private passenger transport.

The transport sector, made up of passenger and commercial/industrial transport, dominates urban energy consumption, accounting for 60–70% of total energy consumption in metros. South African cities are some of the least dense cities in the world, giving rise to a heavy reliance on transport fuels to ensure mobility of people and freight. Local combustion of transport fuels directly impact the levels of local air pollution of the city.

In terms of the CO2 emissions, the residential, commercial and industrial sectors, whose dominant energy source is electricity account for a smaller share of energy use, share a larger proportion of GHG emissions than the transport sector. The transport sector accounts for 30–40% of GHG emissions in metros, while residential 20%, commercial only 12% and industrial 25%. The excessive GHG emissions in the industrial, residential and commercial sectors are due to higher CO2 emissions per unit of energy consumed for electricity than for liquid fuels, since electricity is generated from coal-fired power stations using low-grade coal.

Exhaust Emission a silent killer

Motorized vehicles, especially those operating in cities, are noisy, and when fueled with petrol or diesel, they emit local air pollutants such as the NOx and other particulate matter into our environment. It is said that air pollution globally kills more people on earth than malaria and AIDS combined. The WHO has declared noise as second to air pollution on the impact it has on our health.

NOx is a generic term for the mononitrogen oxides NO and NO2. They are produced from the reaction among nitrogen, oxygen and even hydrocarbons (during combustion), especially at high temperatures. In areas of high motor vehicle traffic, such as in large cities, the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere as air pollution can be significant. Small particles can penetrate deeply into sensitive lung tissue and damage it, causing premature death in extreme cases. Long term exposure can decrease lung function may cause or worsen respiratory diseases, such as emphysema or bronchitis, or may also aggravate existing heart disease.


The road to a better alternative

It is known that the electric vehicle (EV) isn’t a new invention. Electric motors have been in use as far back as the late 1800s. During these times the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle needed benzene to be refueled. There were no refueling stations, but a visit to the local pharmacy got you a refill for the car. In order to start this car, you needed to crank the engine by hand. Only after the electric starter motor was developed and refueling for longer distances for the ICE car became possible, did electric cars lose their appeal. At that time, the negative impacts of the petrol car was not known and not perceived as a problem.

Mr. Carel Snyman, (EVIA Founding Chairman), gives an overview of the developments of the EV industry in South Africa and to highlight the turning points of what might have sparked the interest of the development of an EV industry in South Africa. It looks like the early rise and fall of the electric car in South Africa is proceeded by four periods of interest – these are: i The collaboration of DMEA and CSIR in the early 70s, ii The National Energy Council/Eskom Programme (1988-2002), iii The Joule Project (2004 – 2012), and iv The global environmental concerns highlighted at COP 17 (2011).


The Spark of Electric Vehicles in the early 70s: The first interest in electric vehicles (EVs) and alternatives to petroleum fuels was sparked by the first oil crises. This was evidently an energy issue presented to the country and the then Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs (DMEA). The department, together with the CSIR, researched and demonstrated the use of EVs as an alternative to imported oil. More than 150 research papers resulted from the research and produced a few vehicles converted to electric propulsion. Although quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit a smelly pollutant, these were very slow and had a low range. What came out as highlight of the programme was the development of the ZEBRA (Zero Emission Battery Research Activity) battery (Johan Coetzer) and the Lithiumion battery (Mike Tackery) technologies. The focus for this programme was on local development and commercialization of these technologies, but as the oil crises faded so did the focus on EVs. What a tragedy! This means we lost out on the opportunities to commercialize the technologies.

1988 - 2001

Yet another attempt on Electric Vehicles

Yet again high oil prices triggered the interest in alternatives to petrol and diesel. This time it was the National Energy Council (NEC), created by the DMEA, which initiated various projects to investigate potential solutions. Ethanol, methanol and EVs were some of the alternatives considered. When the NEC was closed in 1992, Eskom continued flying the flag by adopting the EV programme. Various vehicles were piloted and demonstrated – this time with technologies equaling to the performance of conventional cars. Some of the vehicles were deployed in conventional operations, e.g. the electric game viewer in the Kruger National Park, a utility vehicle as part of the eThekwini fleet and two VW shuttle buses – one on Robben Island and the other in Kyalami Business Park. We even showcased the technology at an international event – a small electric utility vehicle produced by Eskom and the old (Nissan) SANI group (now Global Composites) was exhibited as part of the National Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) stand in April 2002 in Paris, France. Various vehicles manufacturers contributed towards the programme with Nissan in the lead.

It was during the Eskom Programme that Denel developed a hybrid electric combat vehicle. Oil prices once again dropped and the Eskom Programme plug was pulled out in June 2002.

2004 - 2012

The turning point – lessons were learnt

Following on the Eskom Programme, Kobus Meiring, of Optimal Energy, and his team started developing the Joule – A local all electric family car. It promised solutions that produces zero emissions, the highest wheel-to-wheel efficiency and minimal lifecycle footprint. Across the globe, automakers began modifying and designing some of their popular vehicle models into electric vehicles (EVs). This meant that EVs now achieved speeds and performance much closer to gas-powered vehicles, specifically targeting use in urban commuting. One of the most well-known electric cars during this time was GM’s EV1 (manufactured early 2000s), but because of high production costs, most of the EVs manufactured during these time were never commercially viable.

Similarly, the Joule posed risks at commercialization, but despite this, the Joule was well received at the Paris Motor Show in 2008 and won a ‘best on display’ award at the Geneva Motor Show two years later. On a local level, the car received positive reviews and was shown support by members of government at COP17 in Durban.

Maybe the timing of the Joule was not perfect. At the time, electric cars were receiving bad thumping worldwide. From the initial idea of complete local innovation and production, things moved to key components to be imported and the market focus to be Europe with a production figure of 50 000 vehicles per year as a target. There was a global market in recession at the time and maybe, just maybe, no one had the confidence in an electric car out of Africa. Clearly, there was never going to be enough local demand for the 50’000 models planned.

Investors saw this as a risk. For them, this meant massive investment and high prices for the car. The project was not viable anymore and eventually got unplugged.

Clearly, the Joule was ahead of its time, but we won’t stop trying. The completed prototype vehicles, components and other hardware remnants of Optimal Energy was placed under custodianship of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) and led by Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), a programme was born at the NMMU on March 2013 with the vision towards a national technology innovation programme that enables and supports development and commercialization of EVs, charging infrastructure, electric power-trains and battery systems in South Africa. This initiative was named the uYilo eMobility Technology Innovation Programme (EMTIP).


Post cop 17 – The future looks electric for South Africa

With all the ongoing starts and stops of the electric vehicle (EV) industry, the true revival of the EV didn’t happen until around the start of the 21st century. Rising gas prices and growing concern from politicians about carbon pollution have helped the drive of EVs globally.

Actually, the first turning point may have been the introduction of the Toyota Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid EV (first production in 1997). Once released worldwide, it became an instant success. Since then, rising petrol prices and growing concern about carbon pollution have helped the Prius to become the bestselling hybrid worldwide during its era.

The other event that helped reshape EVs was the birth of Tesla Motors in 2006, a small Silicon Valley startup company, which promised the production of a luxury electric sports car that could go more than 300 kilometres on a single charge. In 2010, Tesla received a US$ 465 million loan from the Department of Energy to establish a manufacturing facility in California.

Over the next years, other car manufacturers began rolling out their own EVs. South Africa, got the real taste of EVs at the COP 17, where many OEMs showcased their innovative electric drive machines with an attempt to bring E-Mobility to South African roads. BMW brought the Mini E. The Renault-Nissan Alliance also has brought a fleet of zeroemission vehicles to the conference, including Nissan’s Leaf and two of Renault’s four zero-emission models, the Fluence and Twizy. Our very own homegrown electric car, the Joule was also on display at the conference’s Expo.

Despite the buzz on EVs, consumers were still faced with one of the early problems of the EV. Where to charge their vehicles on the go? A lot of countries around the world have involved their governments to help build public charging infrastructure. Heavy investment has been made to improve battery technology, helping to improve a plug-in electric vehicle’s range. This in turn has helped lower the costs of EVs, making them more affordable for consumers.

The future of E-Mobility – still to be written in the South African context – will stand, in part, on the achievements and lessons learned from these earlier periods.

Carel’s involvement in energy started in 1988, when he joined the National Energy Council (NEC) – an energy agency funding related research and assisting government with the developing of policy. Here he was responsible for the alternative transport energy portfolio. When the NEC closed their doors in 1992, Carel continued his career at Eskom where he was responsible for the Electric Transport Programme. Carel joined the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) in June 2013, where he is currently responsible for Cleaner Mobility Programme.

Get in Touch

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



*Note: The entered data will only be used by us and will not be given to 3rd parties.