Russian regions push for electric car revolutions

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When we think of places that are working to blaze trails for emissions free electric cars, Russia hardly jumps to mind. But over the summer, two regional governments in the country launched stimulus efforts that could change that impression for the better.

In late August, officials in Chelyabinsk, located 1,700 kilometers southeast of Moscow, unveiled 10 new electric car charging stations as part of an effort to produce what they call “a new example” of transport in the city.

Days later, officials in Ulyanovsk region in central Russia followed the lead. Sergei Morozov, Ulyanovsk’s governor, declared that within a decade, all transport within his region would be electric. By 2030, he said, Ulyanovsk ­– which is 850 kilometers to Moscow’s east – could even place a ban on cars selling internal combustion engines.

Those are lofty plans in a country where electric car sightings are akin to spotting a UFO. According to Autostat, Russia’s auto registration agency, there are 3,600 electric cars on Russian roads as of March this year – and they account for less than one tenth of one percent of all cars in the country.

But those dismal statistics mask an encouraging tendency – namely that the number of electric cars in the country has doubled in only a year. And last year’s statistic of 1,800 e-car registrations almost doubled the number of e-cars that were registered in 2017. That year, in turn, doubled the figure from 2016.

That’s impressive growth. Autostat says Russia’s electric car market is growing at a rate of 2.6 times per year.

So what’s behind the trend?

Officials at Autostat aren’t sure themselves. But Azat Timerkhanov, the agency’s head, speculates that ownership of e-cars should increase once Russians see that there is somewhere to charge them.

“The number of electric cars in Russia is growing with every year, but it’s still small,” Timerkhanov told the Kommersant newspaper. “It could be that if you begin to build infrastructure, then the number of electric cars in Russia will grow more actively than now.”

Much of the upswing in Russia’s electric car ownership figures can be credited to the far eastern Primorsky Krai, eight time zones to Moscow’s east. Drivers there benefit from their proximity to Japan, which feeds a huge market in used electric cars, particularly the Nissan Leaf.

According to Autostat, one in five of Russia’s registered e-cars are located in the Far East, though unregistered cast off from Japan means the figure electric cars on local roads is likely much higher. But charge anxiety in Vladivostok is high, and electric car owners there have taken to the streets to demand the government in Moscow build more charging stations.

The government in Moscow has tried to respond. In 2015, Russia’s parliament passed progressive legislation that requiring every gas station in the country to offer charging stations for e-vehicles. But so far, only a small number of filling stations – mostly in St Petersburg and Moscow – have bothered to respond.

In 2018, the Kremlin launched a plan that would relieve e-car drivers of transport taxes and offer them a host of incentives like preferential parking, free passage on toll roads and access to traffic lanes reserved for public transport.

But the transformation is going slowly, and fulfilling Moscow’s goals seems to be falling to local governments – like Ulyanovsk and Chelyabinsk.

“It has to begin at a local level,” said Alexander Cherepan, one of the members of the Ulyanovsk government working group to advance electric car infrastructure. “And it has to begin with infrastructure. The electric cars will follow.”

Alexey Kalachev, an analyst with Finam Holdings, an important Russian brokerage firm, had his doubts that the regional plans would succeed without substantial support from Moscow ­– which he said was lacking.

Region by region electric car conversions, he said, was “unreadlistic and unrealizable, both technically and financially,” he told Kommersant. Electric car revolutions like the ones in Norway and China, he said, had the full support of those governments, where Russia’s support for e-car infrastructure was merely tepid.

“Money for such programs is always allocated with difficulty, and then the regions themselves can’t finance them either,” he said.