Many concepts are often discussed but never put in place. Electric vehicles is surely one of the most known example. Surprisingly, this status-quo might end in the upcoming years. The fear of a world with greater constraints on fossil fuels seemed to have encouraged the industry to finally come up with viable solutions. It will require massive investments but strong partnerships between the car industry, cities and infrastructure’s operators are now emerging. This leads us to the city of Copenhagen, where a pilot project is currently being designed by a consortium of several entities, including Renault, Better Place and the city council. Here is a short brief on what is going to be done.
First of all, let’s have a look at the context of the project. In every large scale initiative, such as this one, it is highly necessary to ensure that, whatever you planned to accomplish, it takes into account your local context. Copy-pasting a random initiative that has been done elsewhere often ends up being a failure. In our case – the city of Copenhagen – the development of a fleet of electric vehicles is a well-considered move. With around 20% of its energy production coming from windmills, Denmark is the world’s champion of wind power. However, due to the high intermittence of the wind – you can never predict when it will blow -, the country is facing significant problems for the distribution of its electricity. It even often ends up selling its electricity at a loss to neighbor countries such as Sweden or Norway. Having electric batteries in circulation could enable the city of Copenhagen to store the electricity that they produce. Electric vehicles would then become a way to tackle wind power intermittence issues. Moreover, having the ability to store energy could even allow Denmark to increase its windmill park, which is not feasible at the moment.
Obviously, such a complex system is dependent on a strong and reliable network of recharging stations. This is why, Dong Energy partnered Better Place with the support of the city of Copenhagen to introduce electric cars and infrastructure to Denmark. They are planning to deploy 20 battery switch stations and 60 quick charging stations across the country by March 2012. Cars can be charged in any regular electric plug in about 4 to 8 hours when it takes 30 minutes to charge up to 80% of a battery in a quick charging station. A battery switch station is a place to swap a discharged battery for a fully charged one, saving the delay of waiting for the vehicle’s battery to charge. The process is fully automatic and does not even need the driver to leave his sit. Sugar on the cake, the entire process can be followed from your dashboard. This system would enable electric cars to become suitable for all kind of journey, even long distance ones. A second positive aspect of such a system, customers do not buy batteries anymore, they rent them. It could then incite manufacturing companies to pay more attention to the end of life of their batteries and move towards a more circular economy. On this specific issue, Better Place claims that, at the moment, 95% of a battery can be recycled to make a new one. They even pretend that scarcity of ion lithium could be tackle if recycling infrastructure was scaled up.
In order to provide the necessary electric vehicles, Renault has also been partnered in this project. Featuring the brand new Fluence ZE, officially launched early february, the french manufacturer has developed one of the very first car which runs on removable batteries. The car has been designed to be both functional and performant. The battery provides a range of about 160 kilometers on a single charge, can be charge up to 2 000 times and has a lifetime of 8 years or 320 000 km. Consumers buy the car but batteries are owned by Better Place and are rented to users through a monthly subscription. Prices vary according to your consumption. The more you drive the more you pay. If this situation can sound a bit unusual, it actually solves several problems. Maintenance, replacement and the end of life are now guaranteed by the renting company. It makes the car business moving from a traditional to a product service system business model, which has the advantage of making the industry care about their wastes and see it as a resource. In order to make the battery charge last as long as it can, the maximum speed of the car has been limited to 135 km/h. It is surely lower than a car running on diesel or gasoline but the comparison is not valid. We are talking about future transportation. In a world suffering from scarcity of fossil fuels, trade-offs will have to be done.
In term of ergonomy, the in-car software takes the user experience of driving to the next level. It has been designed to make it easier and better to both travel and commute. That is why, a special care has been given to the development of the user interface. Through an ergonomic primary joystick, the driver has access to all of the features embedded into the car. It goes from traditional automotive navigation system, to a full range of apps such what we can see on nowadays smartphones and tabs. Thanks to both a wifi and a 3G card, the computer can access the internet in almost every situation. All of the information about your consumption, distances traveled and average mileage are easy to access and very nicely displayed in graphs and so on. In electric vehicles, telematics become much more important and are considered to be one of the primary differentiators that consumers will care about. Moreover, the operating system embeds a network software – aka intelligent demand software or smart grid software – allows Better Place to monitor all the batteries’ state of charge in the network. It is then easier than ever to aggregate data and anticipate energy demand. The network software is then able to communicate this data to utility partners in real-time. It allows them to optimize the allocation of energy based on available supply and electric vehicle drivers’ demand. Thus, cars’ batteries become a mean to store energy and, at the same time, users’ demand for energy supply is ensured to be fully met. The energy stored can also be send back to the grid to contribute to handle peak periods of consumption. This distributed storage mechanism is a perfect complement for renewable energy, which is generated intermittently and unpredictably. As we have previously seen, this makes perfect sense in the context of Copenhagen.
Similarly to the promised flying cars of our childhood, electric transportation has been for a long time considered as unrealistic. Though, the city of Copenhagen is about to prove that vehicles powered by electricity may, on the contrary, be a realistic move towards a smarter mobility. The technology is ready and offers many advantages to an urban area. It helps to deal with peaks of demand of energy, ensures a better use of intermittent renewable energies, tremendously improves air quality and increase the quality of the traveling experience. However, some concerns persist. Availability of ion lithium is far to be a guaranteed. Electricity, which is only an energy carrier, is generated from primary energies. Using electricity does not necessairly imply that the energy is clean. As usual, it ends up being a question of relevant trade-offs. Being realistic about the future availability of fossil fuels, electric transportation offers an exciting and engaging solution in progress which deserves to be seriously considered, challenged and improved. Copenhagen is then well positioned to become a pioneer and a leader in this field.