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EVs Start Moving Latin American Cities To Sustainability

Electric vehicles are a novelty with promise in Latin America and are already expanding in several of its city bus fleets.

EVs Start Moving Latin American Cities To Sustainability
BYD electric buses charge in Bogota, Colombia
Natalia Vera and Héctor Cancino

SANTIAGO — It's a distance of 1,150 kilometers, a 12-hour car journey, between Temuco in southern Chile and La Serena in the north. Now, you can drive this distance with an electric car, thanks to a network of charging points placed throughout the 1,400-kilometer length of Chile by Copec Voltex, a firm providing electromobility solutions.

The head of the firm's B2C (business-to-consumer) Commercial Projects Director, Alan Morgan Rojas, says Copec realized electromobility was "coming to stay," hence its decision to enter into recharging infrastructures, "which has a fundamental role. The question this scenario prompts is which comes first, electric cars or charging infrastructure? Without charging points at service stations connecting the country, automobile brands would find it difficult to risk bringing them out if they couldn't even leave Santiago, for example."

Morgan says that with electric cars arriving on the market, charging solutions at home and in public spaces will follow, expanding to different sectors like industry and public transport. "There are many programs like Mi taxi eléctrico, which we'll join and include a home charging solution for drivers. Programs like this encourage the arrival of more electric vehicles, which will mean wider public access. One of the restrictions today is precisely their high price."

Electromobility has started and it won't stop

Tamara Berríos, country manager in Chile for BYD, a Chinese electric carmaker, believes fleets of electric buses will trigger the expansion of e-vehicles in Latin America. "Electromobility has started and it won't stop. It has started in mass public transportation and should naturally flow toward expanding in more cities that are taking an interest, copying the model of cities like Santiago, Bogotá and Medellín, which can already absorb an electric fleet. The next step has to be taxis. We've made all the progress with public transport because buses are not sold individually but in fleets, which is key. It is important to go for markets with a large volume of mass public transport. That way you can absorb a small percentage of that volume, which still gives you an attractive number allowing competitive prices."

BYD currently has 400 buses in Bogotá, 50 in Medellín, 20 in Guayaquil, 15 in Mendoza in Argentina, 30 in Montevideo and 30 in Brazil. It has 435 of its e-buses operating with the Santiago bus system. Other firms eyeing the e-bus market include the world's big carmakers, Tesla, Hyundai, BMW, Nissan and Toyota.

Luis Felipe Clavel, e-vehicles business development chief at Nissan, says, "electric vehicles are happening now, and we're living this across the region. We're so convinced of it we were the first brand to produce and develop electric vehicles on a mass scale in 2010. That was our Nissan Leaf, which we market in eight Latin American countries." He said the firm is working with firms in related tech sectors, like charging infrastructure, to "help introduce e-mobility."

BYD electric vehicles that will be used to encourage the transition from fossil-fuel taxis in Santiago, Chile — Photo: Xinhua/ ZUMA Press

He cited pricing as key to the market's expansion. He said that when the price of a lithium battery, calculated as kWh (kilowatts per hour), drops below U.S. $100/kWh, demand for e-vehicles should rise. The price was around $2,500/kWh in 2010, when Nissan launched its first e-vehicle, and "today we're around $400," says Clavel, adding, "we're seeing a downward trend and hopefully between 2025 and 2030 the $100 barrier will be crossed, which will make this technology more accessible to consumers. We hope the retail boom will happen around those dates."

In 2020, in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, e-vehicle sales grew by 40.9% year-on-year, constituting 4% of all vehicle sales, according to the data analysis firm GlobalData. Indeed, other firms believe growth could be fast enough to prompt a shortage of batteries by 2030.

The three executives from BYD, Nissan and Copec Voltex spoke to América Economía at an E-mobility and Transport module in our online Energy Conference. They agreed Chile was currently ahead of the region in fomenting an e-mobility market. Berríos of BYD said initiatives begun in 2017 were now bearing fruit. "In Chile today we have six Chinese bus brands that are 100% electric, which arrived after us and have given the market a push in lowering prices. Some competing with us in this market are also competitors in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Peru, which are countries slowly creating fleets. BYD is the brand with most e-buses across the Americas."

E-mobility has come to stay in Latin America

The firm, she says, wants to expand into trucks and all long-haul vehicles that will benefit from cutting operation and maintenance costs.

Alan Morgan of Copec Voltex cited the need to expand regulations in this youthful sector, and welcomed Chile's new regulations on installing charging points at home for e-vehicles. The government also needed to find financing mechanisms for sectors like taxis, which he said would help boost demand.

For Nissan's Luis Clavel, Latin America had one advantage over Europe, in the prevalence of parkings in most if not all residential buildings. Unlike Europe's older buildings, many of which have no car parking, he said, these could host charging points allowing people to charge their car and drive out every morning. He said charging infrastructure inside cities was a priority over facilities between cities.

E-mobility has thus come to stay in Latin America. Retail prices and availability of charging facilities will now decide how far and fast it will progress across the continent.

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