France to spend millions on electric vehicle infrastructure, but what is the future of 'plugging in'?

October 10 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment   Year: 2011   Rating: 5 Hot

In recent years advocates of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles have argued ‘the infrastructure for electric cars exists. We only need to plug in our cars at night while nobody is using the electricity.’ This was the source of their disdain for the other electron energy carrier hydrogen. Why waste time on building something new, when it already exists?

It turns out that this observation of our electricity grid was only a snapshot of reality, not the description of a future-ready system for supporting electric vehicles. The world’s electric grids are not ready to support commercial vehicle fleets. And now auto makers like Renault are leading efforts to rally utility grid operators, energy storage companies and entrepreneurs to prepare for the electrification of the global auto fleet.

France’s EDF & Renault creating the future
Business Week is reporting on a pledge by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Paris Auto Show to dedicate 400 million euros ($549 million) in state support for the development of electric and hybrid cars.

The funds are likely to be packaged with a major agreement between Renault and France’s utility EDF to jointly develop the infrastructure needed to recharge electric vehicles, allowing Renault to deliver vehicles in 2011. (The French government owns 85 percent of EDF and 15 percent of Renault.)

GDF is already the owner of the world’s biggest corporate fleet of electric vehicles and has an obvious stake in developing a “smart” charging stations.

Meanwhile Business Week confirms that Renault-Nissan is to establish infrastructure in Israel, Denmark, Portugal, the U.S. state of Tennessee and the Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, with production plans for electric cars from 2011.

Are electric recharge stations the best path?
Futurist Jamais Cascio has been quoted as saying ‘The road to hell is paved with short-term distractions.” And as someone who has followed the hype cycle of transportation propulsion systems I wonder if a strategy based solely on batteries and electricity could be that? A short-term distraction.

The future of vehicle fueling infrastructure might actually be more complicated than just plugging in. Why should we hedge our bets with powering electric vehicles around other electrons carrier systems like fuel cells and capacitors? (Continue)

Hedging our bets on batteries and fuel cells
It is hard to hold a serious strategic conversation about the future of transportation systems when most people are simply eager to implement the quickest, easiest solution.

The good news is that battery powered cars are coming and industry leaders recognize that we will need to invest in new infrastructure.

The bad news is that we still have not had a serious strategic discussion on which electron production and storage alternatives are best suited for automobile applications. There is still a strong case to be made that batteries cannot provide a long term, low cost solo platform for electric propulsion vehicle systems. What about capacitors and fuel cells?

A note from a previous post:GM Kills Combustion Engine
Electric cars are very complicated machines- and they will require a combination of electron power systems including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. Not one device ‘to rule them all’. Batteries alone are not likely to be the end game.

The future of electric cars rests on tapping the cost and performance advantages of all systems working together.

The good news is that advanced lithium ion batteries appear to have enough juice within them to support the first generation of electric vehicles. Hence the rush to expand infrastructure.

The bad news is that it only confuses the general public and distracts us from accelerating development of another form of electron power that can match the cost and performance of gasoline combustion engines. Hydrogen, the chemical storage version of electricity. While H2 was over-hyped during the Dotcom Boom, it is a potent source of energy that cannot be ignored. Appliance based H2 production and solid state H2 storage systems are evolving. And fuel cell membrane costs are dropping quickly. Stay tuned.

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Image Credit: eschipul Flick CC Licnese

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. Good article, Garry. I wasn’t aware France had made the decision to commit to the EV platform in quite this extensive fashion.

    Their decision to do so does point up a problem, as you observe, but I submit that you emphasize the wrong aspect of the equation. I would argue that, contrary to your stated concerns, there is no “one best solution” to the question of motive source. The reason being that there is no overriding specialty market to demand such a limitation. And, no, consumer confusion is not an adequate justification, however well-intended your concerns might be. One need only look in the general direction of Madison Avenue in New York City to discover an entire industry developed around the mission of educating potential consumers.

    Keeping the ad-men honest is a different problem. :)

    It seems to me that the EV market is presently at the same stage of development as was the ICE market of a century and more ago. Diesel, benezine, kerosene, alcohol? All of these and more were tried to varied success in different applications, with diesel and benezine (gasoline here in the US, petrol in Britain) ultimately proving to have the widest applications. The fact that both products have, and continue to, steadily mutate hasn’t proven to be a detriment to either the market as a whole or to achieving the individual customer’s chosen application. It is there that I think you wander off into unnecessary complication.

    Markets tend to fractionate and develop as a result of people’s proven ability to determine what best meets their particular needs from the available resources. No oversight or planning required; self-interest is a trait inherent to the human species. And because of it’s inherent quality, it is fruitless to attempt to pre-determine what is “best” for everyone’s application since each is in fact both unique and itself steadily mutating over the course of our separate lives. Diverse markets exist as a result of our actual diversity, so in a sense France is crippling it’s national transportation markets by making such an exclusionary choice. That said, having a battery re-charge station infrastructure already in place does allow a somewhat easier expansion to include an H2 fuel cell refueling option at a later date, should some other market make such a system viable in it’s own right.

    Basic Adam Smith “invisible hand” stuff I know, but relevant to the topic I think.

    You actually begin to make this argument yourself:

    “The future of electric cars rests on tapping the cost and performance advantages of all systems working together.”

    The market – that is, each of us by our individual choices and purchases – will cause that very result to happen. The speed at which we do so is largely a product of the availability of options from which we can choose.

    The EV industry took a 90-odd year hiatus due to the rate of technological development. As that rate itself continues to accelerate we can rely on the resulting growth of choices to accelerate as well. Which particular method of powering our vehicles ultimately proves to be “best” is entirely up to us.

    Posted by: Will   October 11, 2008
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  2. And now having re-read your article, I realise I hopped right over the (extensive) part where you also raised these same questions.

    Oops! :(

    If ever there should prove a need to document my non-expert status, the evidence is above. Forever …

    At this point I can only re-iterate that the availability of options derives from the technological capability to satisfy demand for same. The on-going demand for alternative(s) to ICE powered transportation will result in additional choices, but only when they actually can compete with the available choices. Efforts to force a result, whether by France or T. Boone Pickins, always come at the expense of the consumers decision making process.

    Posted by: Will   October 11, 2008
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  3. Will…

    Thank you for the well crafted post… Agreed on all your points and insights into how markets function!

    I think it’s an exciting time to be alive at the transition point of one of the world’s dominant industries- transportation.

    Sounds like you might have more than a energy posts in your head! What you obviously see is that the future of energy is a complicated story!

    Look forward to having you contribute to TERM in the future!

    Garry

    Posted by: Garry Golden   October 12, 2008
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