October 05 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment Year: 2011 Rating: 5 Hot
Hawaii might be the perfect market environment for transforming its vehicle fleet from liquid fueled combustion engine vehicles to electric cars powered by batteries and fuels cells. There is strong support for ‘green’ policies, most vehicles trips are over short distances, and the islands’ fixed boundaries make it easy to plan out the cost of infrastructure. There are a number of strong cleantech startups and state has aggressive plans to expand its own local renewable energy production from solar, wind, geothermal and bio energy so it could tap this locally produced energy into electricity or hydrogen to fuel electric vehicles. Now it appears to be planning new fueling infrastructure for the coming wave of electric vehicles.
Today, the Honolulu Advertiser is reporting that electric vehicle infrastructure builder Better Place (Palo Alto, CA) has plans to build a network of electric recharge units and battery ‘swap out’ stations to service Hawaii’s first wave of battery powered electric vehicles.
Is this good news? Yes.
Will it be easy? No.
The Good News
We appear to have taken the first step – getting the auto industry on board. Every major automobile company has announced plans to release its first generation electric vehicles between 2010-12 around lithium ion batteries. Automobile companies appear ready to leverage the manufacturing cost benefits of killing of the combustion engine and adopting more modular electric motors powered by lithium ion batteries, capacitors and hydrogen fuel cells. Auto engineers are now taking the next step towards integrating all systems- to make a viable electric propulsion platform for the 21st century. With this commitment we can expect other companies to start developing infrastructure. The problem? Overcoming the politics of utility power generation.
Forcing Change on Big Utilities
While this news might feel good, the saying “It’s not a revolution if nobody loses” is certainly relevant. Transforming how we fuel our vehicle fleets is not going to be easy or conflict free. But where might we anticipate pushback?
Common sense says ‘Big Oil’, but the real challenge in accelerating this shift towards electric vehicle infrastructure might be ‘Big Utilities’ who are now struggling to imagine their place in a world of fueling homes and vehicles.
This is really a story about the future of utilities, and the transformative power of distributed generation and energy storage.
Electricity’s biggest challenge has always been storage. This is the greatest weakness in our current model of delivering streams of electrons from centralized power plants to wall sockets. Break that stream and your system fails.
Electrons can be stored via batteries, hydrogen fuel cells (chemical storage) or capacitors (physical charge storage). The good news is that we appear to be on the edge of an era of tremendous innovation in all three systems. So storage solutions could be on their way!
The bad news? Utility business models will be challenged, regulations will have to be changed and local governments will be forced to convert the first major disruption in this modern history of electricity sector.
Of course the shift from liquid fuels to electrons (electricity / hydrogen) could help to reinvigorate the electricity industry. But it is not going to be pain-free.
To arrive at this future we are going to need leaders in the utility industry ready to evolve beyond today’s model of central power plants towards a market driven by distributed power generation and storage.
While Better Place is the first brand to try and define this new era of electricity infrastructure, others are close behind. Last week Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Power bought a $230 million stake in Chinese battery maker BYD.
Buffet might see the writing on the wall- energy storage is disruptive. If we are going to evolve past liquid fuels and the combustion engine, we’ll need to get ‘Big Utilities’ to embrace a new era of power generation and storage capable of powering this emerging electric vehicle fleet.
We’ll be watching as Hawaii confronts this challenging era of reinventing the electricity grid!