Denmark Crushes 50% EV Sales Barrier — Now What?

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I wonder what characters like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Hans Christian Ørsted, and Michael Faraday would think about the current shift in the world’s energy systems? Well, Mr. Ørsted and Mr. Faraday would probably think mostly about the technology emerging right know as an only natural extension of their own work, and not give much thought to the fact that the source of most electricity for more than a century has been fossil fuels, and that this electricity had not even been used for transportation. Mr. Tesla and Mr. Edison, on the other hand, having witnessed the rise of the fossil fuel world order, would probably sigh heavily and think it was about time, given their hard work more than a century ago.

The Home Of Ørsted Is Finally Getting It

I think Mr. Ørsted would be pleased to know that 2021 was the year that Danish motorists made the choice to go electric in personal transportation, as a logical alternative to the horses polluting the streets that he would have been accustomed to. I wonder what he would say to the fact that some of the most popular electric vehicles sold now (the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y) are powered on the rear axle by a Permanent Magnet Switched Reluctance Motor based on the reluctance machine patented in 1838 by W. H. Taylor, after Mr. Ørsted himself had discovered electromagnetism in 1820.

By the way, a philosopher by the name Gian Domenico Romagnosi had allegedly described the phenomenon of electromagnetism in an Italian newspaper in 1802, but even though he did get some credit for this, it mostly went unnoticed. André-Marie Ampère should also get some credit for working hard to understand the concept of electromagnetism, which he called electrodynamics when measuring the flow of electrical currents in circuits.

Anyway, back to the present. The association of Danish automobile importers reports that in December 2021 the share of electrified passenger vehicles, including both battery electric-vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrids (PHEV) has surpassed 50%. Here is a month by month graph from the press release:

Image credit – Share of electrified vehicles sales in Denmark 2020 — 2021

Denmark has crushed the 50% barrier in electric vehicle sales, and it has happened a lot quicker than I thought it would. However, it seems more like a catch-up effect, since I have had the feeling this country has been dragging its feet in transport electrification despite being the pioneer in wind power for decades, and I have not had a clue as to when this would happen.

But what does 50% of EV sales tell us? This apparent halfway there news prompts me to bring forth a couple of claims: First, we are not halfway anywhere, we are almost done. Second, electric vehicles will not save the planet, sustainable electricity generation will. So, because news about record-breaking EV sales are about to become trivial, we should think further about how this will help change the whole system.

Exponential Progress, Please

I remember thinking in 2016, when electric vehicle sales in Denmark had crossed the 1% mark, that we had reached way past halfway in sales of electric passenger vehicles, which from my perspective was measured from a day back in 1997 when I saw the Citroën Saxo Electrique being sold in this country. If you live in the US, you might see the General Motors EV1 from 1996 represent that milestone.

The EV1 was without a doubt a more mature EV that GM had put a lot of innovation into (too bad GM chose to kill it), but the Citroën Saxo Electrique felt like it had some genuine utility, despite just being an electrified ordinary Saxo with a shorter range. I remember it was the first EV that I seriously considered buying. However, it would be almost two decades later that EV sales hit the elusive 1% mark, realized by the popularity of the Tesla Model S in 2015.

Now we have passed the 50% mark in Danish plug-in sales (BEV and PHEV). In my opinion, that’s not half the way to all electric vehicle sales, that’s practically the end of the run. Norway went from 50% in 2018 to 90% today in plug-in vehicle sales, and I cannot imagine Denmark — or any country for that matter — will follow a slower trajectory, even though no other country might get as aggressive in incentives as Norway, because with EVs reaching price parity with ICE vehicles now, incentives are not needed.

It’s over. It’s a done deal — in EV sales share, that is. Very soon EVs, and soon enough just BEVs, will be the only form of passenger vehicles being sold, with buses and trucks to follow suit. From now on, the mainstream news will be all about the amazing electrification in transportation that is making the world green again! Green you say? Well, if you buy an EV, please don’t pat yourself on the back and think you saved the planet just yet…

Save The Planet, Please

When I talk to friends and family about electric vehicles, I can put people into roughly 1 of 3 camps: The “electric vehicles are not greener than fossil vehicles” camp, the “electric vehicles will save the planet” camp, and the “Want to save the planet? Ride a bicycle” camp. Personally, I was never in the first camp, but the last two, I have been in both. Now, I see things a bit more nuanced.

I drive an electric vehicle every day, and I love it, but I do not for one minute believe that my daily commute without an exhaust pipe saves anything (and the few days a year I ride my bike doesn’t make a dent either). Then why am I driving an EV? Because the shift to electric vehicles is helping change the whole system, and that is what is needed. It’s not so much about the cars, it’s the innovations in manufacturing, the economics of recycling materials, the energy infrastructure, the exponential leaps in software and electronics, and last but not least, the mindset of consumers.

Buying an EV is like subsidizing the manufacturer of that EV. It pushes the manufacturer to try harder. Legacy automakers are forced to make radical and uncomfortable decisions about their business, if they wish to keep their business. I don’t think many will succeed, because the many EV startups of the world are forced to stay ahead of legacy automakers if they are to have any chance at all. It’s a dog-eat-dog scenario.

Needless to say, the earlier a startup saw this coming, the greater the chance of survival, because in paradigm shifts like the one at hand, a century of work is compressed into a decade, squeezing out the players with inefficient strategies. It’s ruthless, but we’re out of time.

At this point, many would praise Tesla for being the king of sustainable manufacturing, but Tesla is only getting started, and is in fact not a 100% circular business yet. Undoubtedly, Tesla’s goal is full sustainability and recyclability, but since that’s not current reality, others still have a chance to bet big on a livable future planet. But right now it sure looks like Tesla is going all in to claim the title. Tesla’s secret weapon? Do what others think is impossible, which in fact anyone could choose to do.

Remember this: Manufacturers only make what consumers want, but in order to save the planet, consumers and manufacturers alike have to take on the responsibility of making sure only goods that are sustainable get to market. It’s a symbiosis of survival.

Manufacturers have to make products that are sustainable and desirable in order to nudge consumers in the direction of the best value choice, not just lowest price, which can seem counterproductive at first. Consumers have to buy products that are in fact sustainable, and choose high value over low price, which can seem counterintuitive more often than not.

Governments can regulate by taxing the least sustainable options while at the same time incentivize the most sustainable options. Regulators could choose to hit net zero within sectors, and thereby promote innovation, while at the same time punish those who think change is unnecessary. Carbon tax anyone?

We are in this together. In terms of manufacturing and consuming it cannot be an either/or, as those days are over. It has to be a both/and proposition from now on. No one can save the planet. We all can.

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Jesper Berggreen

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

Jesper Berggreen has 237 posts and counting. See all posts by Jesper Berggreen