Thursday, June 24, 2010

Better Place Electric Cars System not suitable for Canberra

Sali Torgoman from Better Place talked about their electric car charging technology in "Why do Electric Vehicles make so much sense?" at Engineers Australia in Canberra, this evening. Unfortunately, Sali appeared to be using a set of standard marketing slides from Better Place, which were not suitable for a technical engineering audience. Despite this Sali dealt well with the technical issues raised.

Some points I found of interest were that Better Place plan to give used batteries which no longer hold sufficient charge for cars a "second life" as stationary power stores on the grid. Sali described a typical new battery pack as costing $12,000, providing 20 kWHr, weighing 200 kg and providing a 160 km range in a vehicle.

However, even with Better Place's technology, electric vehicles do not appear to make environmental or financial sense for Australia. Electric vehicles will remain much more expensive than internal combustion engine vehicles for the foreseeable future. Electric vehicles are only environmentally beneficial where clean electricity is available.

Australia has minimal supplies of renewable electricity and abundant supplies of LPG and natural gas. In terns of energy planning, it would make more sense to invest in renewable energy to replace coal on the grid. Rather than electric cars, gas powered vehicles can be used.

Better Place's automatic batter swap technology is an ingenious idea, but requires a widespread infrastructure to be usable. Even with large numbers of swap stations, long distance driving on Australia's very extensive road network would not be convenient.

Sali gave the figure of 20 km or less as the typical distance driven each day by an urban commuter. With a 20 kWHr battery providing 160 km range, the typical commuter would not have to use a swap station and could use a home charger. However, that commuter could instead have a hybrid rechargeable car with a 2.5 kWHr could make the same journey on battery power and also make longer using its internal combustion engine. A useful alternative to petrol powered hybrid vehicles are natural gas powered ones, now being mass produced in Korea, which could use the existing natural gas grid in Australia, requiring little infrastructure investment.

Better Place plans to provide a pilot program in Canberra. provided this is done as a purely private venture, then the experiment is worthwhile. However, this technology does not appear to suit Australian conditions and the ACT and Federal governments should not provide funding for this program.
A better alternative for government attention would be alternative fuel vehicles, car-share schemes and advanced public transport systems using IT.

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