Taking Electric Vehicles to a Higher Gear

Thursday, September 12, 2019


Clean sources of electricity and predominantly urban populations make Latin America promising terrain for electric cars and buses. But so far, electric vehicles have picked up speed in only a few countries. Two upcoming events will discuss the potential for smarter, more sustainable transportation in the region and look at some of the roadblocks that still stand in the way. One problem? Consumers don’t have enough choices.


For electric cars to take to the road in large numbers, more automakers have to sell vehicles in more countries, explained Lisa Viscidi, who heads the Energy, Climate Change & Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

“One person might just want the cheapest model. Another person might feel that they really need a long range. So it is important to have a couple of models available, and in some countries there are almost none or possibly none at all,” she said.

Another key issue is cost. Depending on the tax or tariff structure, that electric car on the lot can end up being much more expensive than its gas-burning counterpart. Colombia is one country that has implemented incentives for electric vehicles—also electric motorcycles and bikes—and that has driven up sales, according to Viscidi, who co-authored an Inter-American Dialogue report called Charging Ahead: The Growth of Electric Car and Bus Markets in Latin American Cities.

Besides choice and cost, she added, the ability to easily charge the vehicle is another consideration for consumers. “If you own an electric car in Santiago or Mexico City, you don’t really need to worry. There’s a fair amount of public charging infrastructure,” she said. “But in other cities where there’s not as much advance, like in Quito or Lima, there’s very little infrastructure, and so you would have to rely on having the charging station in your home.” That could be challenging for apartment dwellers, she added.

Viscidi will be a presenter in two upcoming events designed to help countries in the region think through the challenges and opportunities related to electric vehicles. The first, on September 17, will be held at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., and will include participants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. It is part of the Ministerial Dialogue Series taking place in advance of the Fourth Ministerial of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), scheduled for February 27-28, 2020, in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The second event is a workshop on “Electric Mobility in the Caribbean,” to be held on October 16 as part of the annual Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum (CREF2019) in Miami, Florida. Among the Caribbean countries, Barbados has made the most progress on electric vehicles, and the workshop will look at that country’s experience, as well as Bermuda’s plans for electric buses.

Public transportation is a particularly promising area for electric mobility, given the potential to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. (See previous related ECPA story, Rethinking Urban Transportation.)

So far, the Chilean capital, Santiago, is the only place in the region to have a large fleet of electric buses, but local authorities in several other cities are implementing small-scale pilot programs. The high cost of electric buses is a major hindrance, Viscidi said, but studies show that the vehicles are cost-effective over the long term, given the savings on fuel. Procurement officials should also look at other factors, she added, such as the health benefits of reducing air pollution.

In cities, fleets of electric buses—and electric taxis—not only lower emissions; they also raise consumer awareness, according to Viscidi. Local officials can create incentives to further promote the use of private electric cars, such as by giving them preferential parking or exempting them from tolls or circulation restrictions intended to reduce the number of conventional vehicles on the road.

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ECPA Ministerial Dialogue Series: Challenges and Opportunities for Electric Mobility in the Americas