Electric Cars: Public Private Plugins

With the Canadian election over, the American electoral debates wrapped up, and our shock at the financial collapse under control... it's time to uncover some of the interesting stories that may have gotten lost in the shuffle. One of those is that this Fall has seen some significant steps toward building infrastructure to support electric car use in major (and some more minor) metropolises. Beginning with an announcement this summer by Portland General Electric , charge-points for electric cars are being installed in London, Westminster and Coventry in the UK, as well as Berlin and Tokyo.

So far electric cars have been held back, in part, by the lack of adequate and convenient infrastructure to support them. With electric vehicles slated to enter mass production in the 12 months in some countries, companies and municipalities have started to prepare for an expected wave of demand from consumers. The question of course is how to address both the costs and the risks of this kind of venture. The answer so far seems to be commercial partnerships. In both London and Berlin the impetus behind the programs has come from collaborations between large auto-manufacturers (Toyota and Daimler) and large power utilities (French owned EDF and German RWE). In Tokyo it is the Tokyo Electric Power Company which is readying itself to support cars produced by Japanese manufacturers Mitsubishi and Subaru – set for release sometime this year.

These are major players. EDF is the largest electricity utility in the world and and Tokyo EPC is the third largest. Clearly they are preparing themselves for a dramatically increased market as the world begins a transition away from fossil fuels. But is that transition really happening? Electricity, like Hydrogen, is a carrier of energy, not an energy source. The source of RWE's electricity in Germany (and many of its other European operations) is dominated by coal, and in 2007 renewables accounted for a grand total of 0.08% of EDF's British generation capacity.

Something else of note is the lack of action on the part of US automakers. Although Ford has delivered a small fleet to Southern California's major electricity utility, it is clear that European and Asian automotive and electricity companies are moving much more quickly to open up this market. The Portland initiative, for example, relies on a partnership between Portland General Electric (PGE) and a local electrified parking space company called Shorepower and is not linked to any specific automotive company. This seems unfortunate given that if electric cars are going to make a difference anywhere, it is going to be in the United States, where sprawling development patterns have locked large portions of the country into mobility problems not easily addressed by transit.

So even though it exciting to see action on this front, there are clearly some issue here if all we are doing is moving the source of emissions from cars inside European cities, to Coal plants in their hinterlands. One more inspiring bit of news comes from the fact that both PGE and RWE/Daimler have bigger plans for vehicle-to-grid technologies which would allow cars to feed power back into the grid if they are parked at peak times – as they are, for example, when commuters return home from work – and recharge over night when demand is low. This would help flatten the spikes in energy demand and stabilize the grid in a way that could open the door for more intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

If electric cars are to make a positive contribution, it will be as a bridge technology. They will allow us to reduce emissions associated with the choices we made in the past about how we live and work, while we retool the shape of settlement to center around walk-sheds, and transit. If used as a crutch to continue old patterns of development, or support fossil fuel based electricity generation we are in for a rough ride.

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UPDATE:

Thanks for the people at http://EVtransportal.com for pointing out that there are are also plugins on the books for San Jose and San Francisico. The EV site has excellent links for those looking for more on this issue.

And Treehugger reports that Greenpeace Germany has protested what the site calls the "nightmare of coal powered cars." "In fact, Greenpeace argues, running a car on diesel is cleaner than an electric car powered by coal-burning power plants, which do dominate Germany's generation capacities." The discussion there picks up the pros and cons of this argument. As always you have to keep your eye on the ball, which in this case is reducing emissions and changing mobility patterns, and make sure that the projects are aimed in the right direction.

Comments

3 Responses to "Electric Cars: Public Private Plugins"

EVtransPortal said... 16 October 2008 at 16:34

The US is also developing recharging infrastructure in cities such as San Jose (500 charge points) San Francisco (RFP with 19 responding proposals) and others for more information see
http://EVtransPortal.com/cerip.html

Lunatrix said... 16 October 2008 at 16:52

Hey, great entry!! Is there anything similar going on in Canada?

Alex said... 17 October 2008 at 12:08

I haven't heard of much in Canada, but I'll check and post a bit more in a few days. It seems like HydroQuebec would be a natural for this kind of partnership...

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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