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How a pop star helped inspire Norway's electric car revolution

Rachel Millard
·6 min read
Norway electric cars
Norway electric cars

Jon Nestby Pettersen and his wife Hilda bought their first electric car last summer, a 170,000Kr (£14,700) Skoda Citigo which they charge at home overnight.

They use it for Mrs Pettersen to travel to work nearby as a teacher, as well as for trips to Oslo about 37 miles to the north east. Mr Pettersen, 58, is a big fan. “It’s quick – you get all the power from the second you hit the pedal,” he says. “It’s also quiet and so small it fits in everywhere. It’s fun.”

Encouraged by generous government incentives and growing alarm over climate change, hundreds of thousands of Norwegians are making the shift to electric vehicles (EVs). The Nordic country that has built a $1.2 trillion (£880bn) sovereign wealth fund out of its oil resources is now leading the way in phasing out the fossil fuel engine.

It has more electric car owners per person than any other country, and more than half of cars sold there last year were pure electric – up from just 1pc a decade ago. The country is on track to meet its goal of phasing out sales of new combustion-engine cars by 2025 – promising carbon reductions and lessons, perhaps, for the UK as it tries to do the same five years later.

“I think we have used the means that were available to us in a very good way and it has been a very consistent policy over the years,” says Oeyvind Thorsen, chief executive of the Norwegian Road Federation.

He adds: “Some of the incentives might seem expensive, but it is an investment in a better society.”

Norway’s efforts to encourage electric cars date back to the Nineties, when it started exempting them from hefty taxes, bringing the cost of many to below or equal to fossil-fuelled peers, despite higher import costs.

Early moves were motivated in part by efforts to encourage Norwegian EV manufacturing, such as the tiny run-around Think, typical of the market before Tesla came along.

Think went bust in 2012, but the tax breaks live on, as do other incentives such as reductions or waivers on parking fees and pricey toll charges, and being allowed to use bus lanes.

“The tax system makes it possible for people to make the right choice,” says Christina Bu, secretary general of the Norwegian EV Association. “We tax what we don’t want and promote what we do want.”

In an improbable chapter, the leader of Norwegian pop group A-Ha, Morten Harket, helped bring in some of the incentives, teaming up with environmentalist Frederic Hauge in a civil disobedience campaign that involved regularly flouting charges in their electric-modified Fiat Panda.

(L-r) Morten Harket, Harald Røstvik, Frederic Hauge and Magne Furuholmen in front of Norway's and Bellona's first electric car - Bellona Foundation
(L-r) Morten Harket, Harald Røstvik, Frederic Hauge and Magne Furuholmen in front of Norway's and Bellona's first electric car - Bellona Foundation

The Norwegian government also moved relatively quickly and early on, making sure charging points were available, with about 3,300 fast-charging points installed around the country. Residents have increasingly strong rights to chargers at home.

About 12pc of cars on Norway’s roads are now electric – compared to less than 1pc in the UK – with manufacturers including Tesla seeing it as a core market for new models.

Sales are spreading to the north of the country. About one quarter of cars passing into the toll booths around Oslo, the capital, were electric during 2020, compared to just 5pc in 2015.

The city wants to cut fossil fuel cars out by 2030 and is exploring plans to exclude them from a zone in the business district sooner than that.

“A hybrid won’t do and any fossil fuel car won’t do,” says Morten Nordskag, political adviser to the city’s vice mayor for environment and transport, the Green Party’s Lan Marie Nyugen Berg.

“And there’s no way you can buy yourself out of it. It’s as fair for the bus driver as for the chief executive.”

Life as an EV driver in Norway is not without its challenges. Queues at fast-charging stations are becoming more common. Drivers face the same patchwork of charging operators. And generous incentives risk being wound back as state coffers need boosting.

Like the UK, Norway is also grappling with how its power grid can cope with a potential surge in electric vehicle drivers plugging in at the same time during the afternoon, with expensive new infrastructure needed unless more charge overnight using smart charging systems.

Electric car charging symbol  - Benjamin Girette /Bloomberg
Electric car charging symbol - Benjamin Girette /Bloomberg

But will drivers embrace this control over their charging habits? “The reality is it is very easy to find enough time slots off-peak to fill the car for the next day,” says Kjetil Ingeberg, Norway director for the AFRY consultancy.

“The inconvenience to the EV owner is in reality almost zero ... The main anxiety is related to fast-charging stations. On peak days, we see quite substantial queues.”

In the UK, incentives including a £3,000 grant for low-emission cars are little match for the generosity of Norway’s schemes, with electric cars still generally 15pc-30pc more expensive upfront – albeit that will be recouped through cheaper running costs.

“Over its lifetime, anything [electric] up to a medium commercial vehicle will be cheaper to run, but that’s not how the average punter thinks about it,” says Ben Foulser, head of KPMG’s UK infrastructure advisory practice. “The cost-parity issue has to be addressed, and it will be.”

Gill Nowell, a director of the Electric Vehicle Association England, says she hopes Scotland’s 0pc loan scheme could be replicated across the UK.

“I think a big point of learning from Norway is we need to take a sustained look at incentives,” she adds.

Nonetheless, sales are rising in the UK. Plug-in sales accounted for about one in 10 of all cars sold during 2020, with 435,000 now on UK roads.

Last year, Boris Johnson promised the Government would invest £2.8bn in support for electric cars, including charging points, adding to the 21,000 charge points dotted around the country. Efforts are also under way to improve drivers’ experiences, with a consultation due out soon.

A spokesman says the Government is going “further and faster than ever before to decarbonise transport and to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050”.

But will we be ready for the end of sales of combustion engines in 2030? “I’d hope so,” says Foulser.

“But I think we are going to be hard pushed against it. It’s no good saying it’s nine years away – we do need to start doing things now.”