What will it take for electric cars to catch on in Russia?

Cable For Charging An Electric Car An electric car charger. Credit: Think Stock Photos

By Matvey Galchenko

Will electric cars ever catch on in Russia? It’s a question that’s been deviling local environmentalists since e-cars took neighboring Scandinavia by storm. With nearly 60 percent of auto sales in Norway accounted for by electric vehicles last year, one wonders when the enthusiasm will cross the border.

Sadly, it’s mostly just enthusiasm that electric car owners in Russia have to buoy them. Part of what is driving the electric car market in places like Norway is the lavish tax perks passed on to buyers when they make the switch from fossil fuel powered cars. Scandinavia – and the rest of Europe for that matter – is also building a robust charging infrastructure and Norway in particular is outlawing the sale of gas-powered cars by 2025. Other countries in Scandinavia and on the European continent will follow in 2030.

This is the kind of encouragement Russian electric car owners just don’t’ have. Legislation that would provide them with the kinds of benefits their European neighbors enjoy repeatedly dies in the hands of Russian lawmakers. A Kremlin measure to waive import taxes on electric cars was introduced in 2014, but it was only valid for two years and wasn’t renewed. Yet other legislation from two years ago demands that all Russian gas stations immediately upgrade to provide rapid charge points for electric cars. While the number of chargers has been rising in places like Moscow and St Petersburg, enforcement of the legislation has been patchy and sluggish.

Still, there is a small group of diehard electric car owners in Russia who wouldn’t go back to traditionally fueled vehicles if they were being given away.

“I admit it, I got hooked,” a 39-year-old named Grigory wrote on a Russian Internet forum for electric car owners. He bought a Nissan Leaf this year and hasn’t looked back. “I can’t even say exactly what the attraction was – it drives great and I’m saving money, and I’m also protecting the environment and feel better off than the petrol mass.”

He’s not alone. According to Autostat, Russia’s vehicle statistics bureau, the number of new electric cars purchased in Russia jumped from a meager 920 in 2017 to more than 2,500 just halfway through the next year. And this doesn’t account for the number of used electric cars flooding Russian markets in the Far East.

Of course, these numbers don’t begin to compete with European electric car figures, but e-car owners in Russia have become a vocal minority. Last year, 150 electric car owners in Vladivostok banded together to protest the city’s lack of a decent charging infrastructure. Part of their protest was geared toward demanding Moscow make good on that promise to provide chargers at gas stations.

Iya Gordeyeva, who heads AuditEnergo Group, an e-car advocacy organization, helps channel voices like these. Last year, she set out on the 1339 kilometer journey from St. Petersburg to Murmansk in her Tesla to make a point: Russia needs more electric car charging stations. Although the range she gets from a charge on her Tesla S is bigger than most electric cars, she still had to travel with a generator to make up the difference.

e-car gordeyeva Iya Gordeyeva, who drove her Telsa from St. Petersburg to Murmansk. Credit: Anna Kireeva/Bellona

Yet that’s the kind of ingenuity most e-car drivers in Russia have to resort to. In the absence of reliable charging stations, e-car owner who live outside big cities juice up their cars from a regular household outlets.

But Gordeyeva has some big ideas about the kind of changed Russian e-car drivers need so they don’t have to rely on shrewd do-it-yourself measures to keep their cars moving.

One of these things, she says, is to create a system of preferential loans for those business owners who agree to put up e-car chargers. Gordeyeva was in Ulyanovsk, 850 kilometers east of Moscow, last month for the city’s All Renewables World Energy conference where she and the regional governor, Sergei Morozov, signed a memorandum to collaborate on outfitting the city with e-car chargers.

Other such collaborations are underway elsewhere. Bellona and the regional government of Murmansk have joined forces to help get more charging stations built along the highways running between Northwest Russia and Scandinavia. Bellona got that ball rolling by donating an e-car charging station to the Park Inn by Radisson hotel in central Murmansk in 2017.

Still, for the grudging progress that’s being made, electric cars are still a rare and surprising sight in Russia. But Alexei Lebedev, another Russian e-car owner commenting on the Internet, has an answer to that.

“In the past, people were riding horses and considered those who used cars strange,” he wrote. “Now people think the same of me. But it’s obvious that electric cars are the future.”

Matvey Galchenko is an intern at Bellona’s office in Murmansk.