Shift to electric vehicles in Alberta is inevitable, conference-goers told

Shift to electric vehicles in Alberta is  inevitable,  conference-goers told
Alberta’s oil-based economy needs to prepare itself for a looming consumer shift to electric vehicles, a Calgary crowd heard Tuesday.

Disruptive change in the automotive sector is already here and is likely to reach a crucial tipping point within the next five or six years, said MIchael Liebreich, founder and guest contributor of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“It will happen at different speeds in different places . . . but there are going to be millions of Canadians and hundreds of thousands of Albertans and Calgarians who are going to be buying these things,” Liebreich said in an interview. “The inevitability is that we will end up with very high penetrations of electric vehicles in the mix, because they’re better vehicles.”

Liebreich, who is also CEO of Liebreich Associates where he provides advisory services on topics like clean energy and transportation and sustainable development, was one of the speakers at the second annual Energy Disruptors conference taking place at Stampede Park.

He told the audience that EV sales hover at about two per cent of total passenger vehicle sales worldwide, but that figure is already significantly higher in markets like California, China and Norway. He said with car companies investing heavily in EV development and battery technology rapidly advancing, mass adoption is only years away.

“There’s a demand curve with these things. Going from one per cent adoption to five per cent is like waiting for a sneeze, where you know it’s going to come, but it seems to take much longer than you think. And then going from five per cent to 50 per cent is much faster than anticipated,” Liebreich said.

One company that is betting heavily on the expected shift is Volkswagen Group. The German car manufacturer has an ambitious plan to launch 50 new electric vehicle models by 2025 and to have a fully emissions-free fleet by 2050. The company will invest 30 billion euros by 2023 on its EV strategy, said Volkswagen’s head of e-mobility services, Martin Roemheld.

Roemheld, who also spoke at the Energy Disruptors Conference on Tuesday, said Volkswagen believes it must get ahead of the change it sees coming.

To become the market leader in e-mobility is the best way to a secure and successful future,” Roemheld said in his address. “Sixty thousand people at this company will be affected by this change . . . We are shifting people from jobs that might not have a future to jobs that have a future.”

A Volkswagen e-Golf electric car is pictured at the 2019 Brussels Motor Show in Belgium. Francois Lenoir / REUTERS

There are a number of unknowns around the market potential for EVs, including the coming of autonomous vehicles and the rise of the sharing economy which may result in many people choosing not to own a personal vehicle at all in decades to come. The EV may never see the type of sales volumes that internal combustion engines have currently, said Roger Atkins, founder of Electric Vehicles Outlook Ltd.

“I don’t think everyone in this room someday is going to have an electric vehicle,” Atkins said. “In Canada, if you live in a big place with a lot of distance, that shift is going to take much longer if it ever happens at all.”

Still, Liebreich said the oil industry needs to see the writing on the wall and position itself appropriately.

“You’ve got such extraordinary skills and capabilities and capital to be part of the solutions, but you have to face the direction of travel,” he said. “You can play in that electrification space, or you can find other areas that are not going to be disrupted so quickly, whether it’s petrochemicals or long-distance trucking or aviation. Plenty of the world’s economy is going to be stuck on fossil fuels for a long time — why be angry about the bit that isn’t?”
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