Will Olympics Charge South Korea’s Fledgling E-Car Market?

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By Elaine Ramirez

The Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games have put South Korea center stage to showcase its sustainability efforts, which include deploying electric vehicles in the host cities in Gangwon Province.

The province has 24 charging stations, four electric public buses and 474 electric cars, all new since 2011, the government said. While a drop in the bucket compared to many parts of the world, it’s a start for South Korea.

The country was late to begin to embrace electric vehicles—even though it is home to Hyundai Motor Co. and its affiliate, Kia Motors Corp., both of which have electric cars in their fleets. In fact, Hyundai is supplying its Ioniq EV for operations at the Pyeongchang Games.

The country’s electric vehicles push only began in 2012. To try and speed adoption, South Korea has some of the world’s highest subsidies—up to 45 percent of an e-car’s purchase price, said Kim Sang-hyun, energy division director for the Gangwon provincial government.

Late to the Game

The number of electric vehicles nationwide in South Korea more than doubled in 2017 from the year before to 25,593, according to the Ministry of Environment. By way of comparison, China had about 483,000, the U.S. had 297,000, Norway had 99,000, and Japan had 86,000 battery electric cars—not even counting plug-in hybrid vehicles—in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency.

The Hyundai Ioniq takes up over half the domestic electric vehicle market in South Korea. Other popular models include the Renault Samsung SM3 Z.E, the Kia Soul, the Chevrolet Bolt, the BMW i3, and the Tesla Model S.

While the rural province of Gangwon, 118 miles east of capital Seoul, has less than 500 electric vehicles today, by 2030 it hopes to have 320,000 electric vehicles on its roads, powered by 1,060 rapid charging stations, Kim said.

Tesla, General Motors

Hyundai Motor’s production of electric vehicles in 2018 will be “significantly higher” than last year, when it sold nearly 8,000 Ioniq vehicles in South Korea, spokeswoman Seonjin Cha said. Sales this year will include the company’s new Kona compact SUV electric model.

And global automakers like Tesla Inc. and General Motors have set up shop in South Korea.

But considering South Korea’s national goal to reach 1 million electric vehicles—about 4.5 percent of all cars—by 2020, the country has a very, very long way to go.

The relatively high prices of electric vehicles—starting from 38 million won ($35,300) for a basic Hyundai Ioniq—mean the country needs its generous subsidies, Kim said.

The Ministry of Environment expects to dole out 240 billion won ($223 million) for 20,000 EV subsidies this year, a ministry official said.

And it needs more charging stations. “In terms of expanding the number of charging stations to satisfy our target, we have to secure more local funds, but we haven’t been able to do that yet,” Kim said.

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