Published on June 29th, 2012 | by April Streeter0
Plug and drive
Gorm Lykke Østergaard, a manager at PA Consulting Group, hasn’t bought a new car in six years.Thus he’s eager to take delivery of his all-electric black
Renault Fluence Z.E. this month (ed. April 2012). Østergaard considers himself an early adopter of high-tech mobility – he made a down-payment onan ‘air car’ eight years ago – though he’s still waiting for delivery of that one.
That experience might have given Østergaard pause when plunking down money for another ‘to be delivered’ car he couldn’t immediately drive off the showroom floor, yet he says it’s exactly the opposite.
“At this point, I honestly can’t see a good argument NOT to buy an electric car,” Østergaard said, citing four factors that he says make an EV perfect for him and by extension, all Danes: Denmark’s relatively small geography; no tax on EV vehicles, making the Fluence one-third the price of Østergaard’s six-year-old Audi; free EV parking in Danish cities; and, last but not least, eco-aware Danish consumers ready to help reach Denmark’s ambitious climate and alternative energy goals.
Fifty percent of electricity is expected to come from wind power in Denmark by 2020; the country aims to be fossil-fuel independent in electricity by 2035.
Denmark’s small geography does make it less expensive – compared to other nations – to build an EV infrastructure comprehensive enough to chase away consumers’ ‘range anxiety’ – fear of being stranded far from help with a dead battery. Better Place, an American company headed up by Israeli businessman Shai Agassi must think so, too – Israel and Denmark are the two pilotcountries initially chosen for Better Place’s unique battery-swapping EV model.
Østergaard will test the infrastructure with his new Fluence on a trip to Denmark’s northern shores before the summer is out, and he expects to have no issues replacing the battery a couple of times along the freeway at modular swap stations or recharging at available charge posts overnight.
In Better Place’s set-up, ‘member’ customers purchase an EV car (thus far, only the Fluence) sold without a battery, and subsequently sign up for a monthly plan with Better Place (based on an estimate of miles driven annually) that includes all electricity and battery swaps needed. At Better Place Denmark’s modular battery swap stations (one is open on the outskirts of Copenhagen and at least 20 more are to be opened in the next four months) it takes only a few minutes for a robotic arm to pluck a used battery from a car’s underbody and install a fresh battery.
Better Place, which is expecting 4,000 new owner-members by year’s end, said its membership model is unfamiliar to most ‘ICE’ (internal combustion engine) car owners, however, and may take some getting used to, according to Susanne Tolstrup, the Better Person spokesperson in Denmark.
“You tend to forget when you buy an ICE you make approximately a 10-year contract with the gas supplier, and you’ll have to pay whatever price is at the pump,” Tolstrup said. With an EV, Better Place is the car’s electricity as well as battery and service provider, for a monthly fee.
Users’ actually usage will vary, which is why Better Place cars will have Oscar, an on-board GPS and intelligent range predictor. Oscar records a driver’s driving style, trip data, and even current traffic data to give a very detailed prediction of battery range, and to point out where the nearest charge or battery-swap stations are located.
In spite of the differences between EVs and ICEs, Østergaard and Anders Eldrup, (another new Fluence driver and – until recently – CEO of Danish utility DONG which has a financial stake in Better Place) both say they are surprised at how much like a regular sedan the Fluence feels to drive.
“I’ve had positive experiences with my Fluence,” Eldrup said. “It has satisfying acceleration and comfort.”
Østergaard added that on his test rides, “inside-out and outside-in, the Fluence feels like any other sedan.”
Luckily it is in Denmark’s favor that a big uptick in EV sis on the horizon (Better Place hopes for 20,000 on the roads by 2014)as they constitute an important ‘modulator’ in the wind power-dominated electric system Demark is becoming, and it is time to test their real-life effects on the Danish grid. (Denmark hasn’t until now taken to EVs as much as neighboring Norway, where about 3,300 electric cars and a similar number of charging stations are already on the road).
Anders Bavnhøy Hansen, chief consultant of strategic planning for the Danish electricity system operator Energinet, says the main challenge is to deal with the ‘small power unit’ that a car battery represents, rather than larger units such as power plants, the power grid is more used to.
Thus EV cars need to be more intelligent, Hansen said, able to identify themselves to the grid and regulate their consumption from the grid, based on grid-to-EV communications. Better Place’s OSCAR doesn’t yet handle this.
Car batteries also need to be quicker charging, not only for user convenience yet also so the network will be able to more rapidly offload unexpected excess power – due to sudden strong winds and an influx of wind electricity to the Danish system. The grid in addition needs to be smart enough to manage and message EVs so they don’t zap it when it’s overloaded by other power users (such as consumers starting to cook dinner at 6 p.m. or powering up their computers at 8 p.m.).
What about moments when users really need a charge, even though it’s 6:15 p.m.? On the grid operators’ side, agreeing on dynamic pricing tariffs is a part of the smart grid puzzle, so that operators like Better Place can direct the fleet and manage to avoid peak-hour charging. Energinet’s job is to establish a national data hub that supports all these communications.
Hansen said it will take some years to get dynamic tariffs, and the national data hub in place. In the meantime, the rise of this new industry, Better Place said, is estimated to create as many new jobs in the next ten years as Denmark’s wind industry has in the past ten, as well as spawn further technological innovation. Denmark is as far along as any other country in working out the details of smart grids, Hansen said, because wind integration is so central to its climate goals, and EVs so key to cost-effective management of wind in the system.
“We have stable grids, and experience shows globally it’s very expensive to have unstable grids,” Hansen said “By the time the cars arrive in large amounts – 10 years – we’ll have the interactions between EVs and the grid well figured out.”