About 180 kilometers south of Oslo, along a highway lined with pine and birch trees, a gleaming gas station offers a glimpse of a future where electric cars rule.
Battery chargers are more common than gas stations in a service area operated by Circle K, a retail chain that originated in Texas. During summer weekends, when Oslo residents escape from their luxury homes, the queue to top up sometimes stretches to a crossroad.
Marit Bergsland, who works at the store, has had to learn how to help confused customers plug in a charger, in addition to her usual duties of flipping hamburgers and registering purchases of salted licorice, a popular condiment.
“Sometimes we have to give them a cup of coffee to calm them down,” he said.
Last year, 80% of new car sales in Norway were electric, making the country at the forefront of the transition to battery-powered transport. It has also turned Norway into a case study of what the electric car revolution could mean for the environment, workers and life in general. The country will end the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine in 2025.
Norway’s experience shows that electric cars bring benefits without the negative consequences predicted by some critics. There are problems, of course, including unreliable chargers and long waits during peak demand. Auto dealers and retailers have had to adapt. The changes reorganized the auto industry, making Tesla the best-selling brand and edging out established automakers such as Renault and Fiat.
But the climate in Oslo, the capital of Norway, is much cleaner. The city is also quiet, as the noisier petrol and diesel cars are dumped. Emissions of greenhouse gases in Oslo have decreased by 30% since 2009, but there has been no significant unemployment among gas station workers and the electricity grid has not collapsed.
Some lawmakers and business executives are painting the fight against climate change as demanding hard work. “For EVs (electric vehicles), that’s not the case,” said Christina Bu, secretary general of the Norwegian EV Association, which represents EV owners. “It’s really something that people appreciate.”
Norway started promoting electric cars in the 1990s to support Think, a local EV startup that was owned by Ford Motor for a few years. Battery-powered vehicles were exempted from value-added and import duties and highway taxes.
The government has also subsidized the construction of fast charging stations, essential in a country almost the size of California, with just 5.5 million people. The combination of motivation and ease of loading “has removed all the friction,” said Jim Rowan, CEO of Volvo Cars, based in neighboring Sweden.
Those policies put Norway more than a decade ahead of the United States. The Biden administration aims for 50% of new car sales to be electric by 2030, a milestone that Norway crossed in 2019.
Just meters from the six-lane highway that circles Oslo, steel pipes protrude from the roof of a prefabricated cabin. The building measures pollution from traffic passing near the bike path and marina.
Levels of nitrogen oxides, a byproduct of petroleum and diesel fuel that cause air pollution, asthma and other illnesses, have decreased significantly as ownership of electric vehicles has increased. “We are on the way to solving the NOx problem,” said Tobias Wolf, Oslo’s chief air quality engineer, referring to nitrogen oxides.
But there is still an issue where the ball meets the road. Oslo’s air contains unhealthy levels of fine particles, produced in part by abrasion from tires and asphalt. Electric cars, which are about a third of the registered cars in the city but the majority of the traffic, can even exacerbate this problem.
“They are actually heavier than internal combustion engine cars, and that means they cause more friction,” said Wolf, who, like many Oslo residents, prefers to get around by bicycle.
Another ongoing problem: Apartment residents say finding a place to park their cars is still a challenge. Recently, in the basement of a restaurant in Oslo, parliamentarians and locals gathered to discuss the issue.
Sirin Hellvin Stav, Oslo’s deputy mayor for environment and transport, told the event that the city wants to install more public chargers, but also reduce the number of cars by a third to make the streets safer and make room for walking and cycling.
“The goal is to reduce emissions, which is why electric cars are so important, but also to make the city better to live in,” Stav, who is a member of the Green Party, said in a later interview.
The electric vehicles are part of Oslo’s broader plan to reduce its carbon emissions to nearly zero by 2030. All city buses will be electric by the end of the year.
Oslo is also targeting construction, the source of more than a quarter of its greenhouse gas emissions. Contractors bidding on public projects are more likely to win if they use equipment that uses electricity or biofuels.
In a park in a working-class neighborhood in Oslo last month, a bulldozer was digging up dirt to make a decorative pond. A thick cable connected the excavator to a power source, driving its electric motor. Later, an electric dump truck removed the soil.
Normally, the staff would stop work when the children in the nearby kindergarten are asleep. But the electronics were quiet enough that work could continue. (Children in Norway sleep outside when the weather permits.)
Espen Hauge, who oversees construction projects in the city, said he was surprised by how quickly the contractors replaced diesel machines and installed electrical equipment that was not available. “Some projects that we thought were impossible or very difficult to have zero air, we still won the bid to produce zero,” he said.
Stav acknowledged what he called the hypocrisy of Norway’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while producing more oil and gas. Fossil fuel exports generated US$180 billion in revenue last year. “We are exporting this pollution,” Stav said, noting that his party has called for an end to oil and gas production by 2035.
But the Norwegian government has not backed down in oil and gas production. “We have several fields in production or under development, providing energy security for Europe,” Amund Vik, foreign secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, said in a statement.
Elsewhere, Norway’s electricity grid is holding up well even as electricity demand increases. It helps that the country has a lot of hydroelectric power. However, electric vehicles have increased demand for electricity somewhat, according to calculations by the EV Association, and many owners charge their cars at night, when demand is lower and energy is cheaper.
Elvia, which supplies electricity to Oslo and the surrounding area, had to install substations and transformers in some areas, said Anne Nysæther, the company’s managing director. But “we haven’t seen any issues with the grid collapsing,” he added.
Nor was there any increase in unemployment among car mechanics. Electric cars don’t need oil changes and require less maintenance than gasoline cars, but they still break down. And there are many gasoline vehicles that will require maintenance over the years.
If anyone has to worry about their job, it’s the car dealership. The almost complete disappearance of petrol and diesel cars from showrooms has restructured the industry.
Moller Mobility Group has long been the largest automotive retailer in Norway, with sales of $3.7 billion last year with dealers in Sweden and the Baltics. The Moller store in Oslo is full of electric Volkswagens such as the ID.4 and ID.Buzz. There are only a few internal combustion cars.
However, Tesla is outpacing Volkswagen in Norway, capturing 30% of the market compared to 19% for Volkswagen and its Skoda and Audi brands, according to the Road News Council.
Sales of electric vehicles by Chinese companies such as BYD and Xpeng are also growing. If this trend repeats itself in other parts of Europe and the United States, some of the leading car manufacturers may not survive.
Petter Hellman, CEO of Moller Mobility, predicted that traditional brands would return because customers trust them, and they have extensive service networks. “But it’s clear that Tesla shook up the industry,” he added.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves