From California to Oslo: Foreign subsidies fuel Norway's e-car boom, for now

OSLO — On the outskirts of Oslo, a row of Fiat 500es imported from California stand parked in the snow outside the Buddy Electric dealership, part of a global flow of pre-owned electric cars to Norway powered by green subsidies elsewhere in the world.

The company's production manager, Tor Einar Hanssen, said it had sold about 110 in the past year and a half, making a small profit on the cars, most of which had been used for a few years by US leasing companies. "They're surprisingly good in cold weather," he said.

A gleaming blue Fiat 500e is on sale for 129,000 Norwegian crowns ($15,000) with 24,000 km (15,000 miles) on the clock. It costs about 20,000 crowns ($2,300) to import and adapt each Fiat, Hanssen said. On US used car websites, similar Fiats in California are advertised for about $10,000.

Norway has the world's highest rate of electric car ownership in the world, partly thanks to long-term perks such as free or discounted road tolls, parking and charging points, which boost the appeal of second hand models unwanted elsewhere.

The government also exempts electric vehicles from taxes on traditional vehicles that are very high in a country, which does not have its own fossil fuel car industry to lobby against them. Rebates offered by other countries are another part of the equation.

In California, residents who own a new battery electric car for at least 30 months can get a rebate of up to $4,500, said John Swanton, of the California Air Resources Board.

The Fiats show how varying incentives around the world to promote electric cars, spurred by efforts to combat climate change and limit air pollution, can affect trade flows.

They can also distort national goals for shifting from fossil fuels, although US exports to Norway of 4,232 used electric cars in the past two years are tiny compared with US sales. The state of California alone aims to have five million zero-emission vehicles on its roads by 2030.

The issue has a bigger impact in some European countries, which may be over-estimating the greenness of their domestic car fleets due to exports to Norway, where top plug-in cars include Nissan Leafs, Volkswagens , BMW and Tesla.

"We're getting a certain amount of vehicle electrification for free, paid by other countries," said Lasse Fridstroem, a senior research economist at the Norwegian Centre for Transport Research.

"But perhaps it won't last," he said of the used e-car imports. He and some car dealers say demand for electric cars elsewhere in Europe is picking up, and that Norway could swing to be a net exporter of used electric cars in coming years.

At the moment, long waiting lists for new electric cars in Norway mean that people who obtain a new model in high demand, such as a Tesla Model 3 or Hyundai Kona, can potentially re-sell it above list prices that are already higher than elsewhere.

Part of the reason is a bottleneck in new e-car imports. This is caused, to some extent, by incentives for carmakers to sell electric cars in the European Union, of which Norway is not a member, even if they are immediately exported to Norway.

To tackle this issue, from January 2019, sales of new cars in Norway are included in a broader EU calculation of the greenness of each manufacturer's European-wide car fleets, a target the carmaker must meet to avoid large penalties.

This could reduce Norway's demand for imports but may also mean its EU neighbors record fewer sales.

Last year, plug-in electric cars accounted for 31.2 percent of new car registrations in Norway, the highest in the world, and the share rose to 34.2 percent when including second-hand imports, according to the Norwegian Road Federation (OFV). The two figures surged to 40.7 and 43.5 percent in February 2019.

Statistics Norway said 11,913 used electric cars and vans were imported last year, up from 9,063 in 2017 when it started to compile data of the second-hand trade.

They came from countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Britain and South Korea, bringing some of the benefits of cleaner air and less noise intended for their citizens to Norway, where the environment is already far cleaner than in many other countries.

Trod Sandven, a Jaguar Land Rover dealer in Bergen in west Norway, bought 250 new Kia Soul cars last year in countries including Germany. After registering them for a day so that they counted towards manufacturers' green goals under the EU rules, he exported them undriven to Norway to sell as "second hand".

"They're brand new, with the plastic still on the seats. The only thing we do is the paperwork," said Sandven. He said he received no German subsidies, since that would require owning the cars for several months in Germany.

"Now it’s changing again, now we are exporting cars to other countries," he said. "Norway is crowded with used electric cars and Europe is screaming for electric cars. It's changing every year."

Stockholm tightened subsidy rules last July after finding that about 10 percent of all electric and plug-in hybrids were exported within five years. Eighty percent of those exports ended up over the border in Norway.

"It is problematic that some of the used electric vehicles, that have been subsidized by Swedish tax payers, are exported," said Jakob Lundgren, spokesman for Sweden's Environment Minister Isabella Lovin.

Under the new system from July 2018, Swedes have to own a new electric car for six months before receiving a 60,000 Swedish crowns ($6,398.50) rebate. Previously, they got a 40,000 crown discount on buying the car.

Lundgren said there were no data yet to show if the rule change had made an impact. With just five million people, Norway bought 46,143 new battery electric cars in 2018, making it the biggest market in Europe ahead of Germany with 36,216 and France on 31,095, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association.

EU rules in effect from 2020-21 will force new cars sold in Europe, including Norway, to average no more than 95 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre, with carmakers facing hundreds of millions of euros in potential fines for non-compliance.

Other nations tend to hand out subsidies to make e-cars cheaper but lag in infrastructure, such as charging points. Norway wants all new cars to be zero emissions by 2025. Among other nations, Britain and France have similar goals for 2040.

Electric cars depreciate less quickly in Norway than elsewhere, partly due to the ongoing benefits, which include low-cost ferry trips and use of bus lanes to avoid congestion.

"Norway has become a magnet for the rest of Europe to ship used battery electric vehicles," Matthew Harrison, executive vice president Toyota Motor Europe, said at the Geneva motor show this month. "Frankly there is no used-car demand for battery electric vehicles" elsewhere in Europe, he said.

Among sources of second hand imports, Fridstroem and other economists said they were baffled by those from Britain. Norway imported 2,147 electric cars from Britain in 2017, and 133 in 2018, according to Statistics Norway.

The steering wheel in British cars is on the right, the wrong side for driving in mainland Europe, making them unattractive in Norway.

A spokesperson for the British Department for Transport said the main conditions for plug-in car grants, of up to 3,500 pounds ($4,624.55), were that buyers have an address in Britain and register the vehicle in the country.

The Department did not comment when asked if some dealers might be buying electric cars made in Britain but designed for mainland Europe. That might be a loophole allowing dealers to pocket the grant and export the car to Norway, although it was not clear why the number of exports had dropped. — Reuters