Alternative technologies won't get off the ground without the infrastructure to support them. Motoring editor Neil Vorano finds those leading the charge at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Electric cars shift from concept to viable alternative
Sometimes, like the song goes, you just can't make it on your own.
And that can't be more true for the future of electric transportation, as was apparent at the World Future Energy Summit this past week. Because, for as much fanfare as electric cars have been getting in the last few years, the biggest hold-up to their widespread use is not so much the cars themselves but a lack of charging infrastructure to support their use. Without a way to conveniently and quickly charge them, EVs will remain a quirky technology that will eventually succumb to society's overriding need for convenience over responsibility.
Portugal, of all places, realises this. At the country's pavilion on the floor of the summit sat a cute little EV model hooked up to a charging post. But this isn't just something to show what can be done; the country is one of the leading environments in the world for electric mobility.
"Portugal is the first country in the world to have a truly dedicated electrical system for charging electric cars," said Alexandre da Silva of the Centre for Excellence and Innovation in the Automotive Industry (Ceiia). "We have 25 cities all around the country where we have placed these charging systems; after that, we have a control centre in which we can test and verify the charging of these stations."
Ceiia is part of a consortium called Mobi.E, which is made up of various companies - including utility firms - and is dedicated to the expansion and development of an electric charging grid in Portugal. Da Silva says that there are already 315 charging stations in Portugal and, by the end of this year, they will have installed 1,000 more, including fast-charging posts that will restore 80 per cent of a car's energy within 10 minutes.
But these stations, which are located both on public streets and within people's private homes, don't just juice up an EV; they are smart enough to charge different rates for electricity based on the peak and off-peak periods of the grid.
As well, EV owners there have an option to sell electricity back to the grid during peak times when it is needed the most.
The system is also open to, as da Silva refers to, "new players". Anyone can aquire a charging station and set it up in their home, workplace or a public area and hook onto the grid.
But Mobi.E isn't just about charging stations; Cella itself designs electric cars. The little bubble car on the Portugal stand was a mock-up of an ongoing design that, da Silva said, will be flexible enough to build several different vehicles on the same chassis. Cella is designing the vehicle for VNA, a company in Portugal that intends to build the vehicles for the local market.
With a strong charging infrastructure, da Silva is optimistic about its chances. Indeed, the entire consortium of companies has made its own luck in the industry, and it has spurred real progress in the country when it comes to EVs.
"The consortium saw an opportunity in the market," says da Silva, "and the government approached those companies and said 'Go ahead. We can support you, give all the support you need. Let's put Portugal at the front when it comes to electrical mobility.'"
As a further indication of Portugal's EV efforts, its prime minister, José Sócrates, received the keys to a new electric Leaf from Nissan, which partnered with the country in setting up its first EV grid in 2008.
Portugal and Mobi.E had to work within the existing electrical grid of the country, which produced its own challenges. But one place where that won't be a problem is right in our own backyard.
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi has partnered with Mitsubishi in testing 10 of its small iMiev electric vehicles within its transportation network. The electric cars will be charged via a smart grid that is being set up by Siemens, the German company that partners with Masdar for its power supply.
Siemens is building a "medium voltage grid" within the city, which will feed off of a transformer from Abu Dhabi's power supply and make it accessible to Masdar City via a smart grid. The system is able to regulate and limit electricity to certain areas, buildings, charging stations - even appliances - when there is a spike in usage. Naturally, the Mitsubishis will be charging on the grid, and they will have the ability to share the energy in their batteries with the grid during peak hours.
Originally, Masdar planned to limit transportation in the city to light rail lines and Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) driverless pod cars. But the company recently changed its mind and is now looking towards EVs.
"When we thought the PRT was an original solution, that was four years ago," said Alan Frost, Masdar City's director. "But as electric vehicles have become a reality - they really weren't four years ago - our bet is that electric vehicles and regular cars will move on so fast in the coming years that we were locking ourselves into an old technology."
The relationship between Masdar and Mitsubishi is a symbiotic one.
"Mitsubishi is trying to look at battery life and do some testing, particularly in this region," continues Frost. "And then, from our point of view, we want to look at the system above the electric car itself. So, how do you manage the charging system, how do you manage energy storage with the cars? We don't want to invest in cars, but we want to know how to manage them.
"One of the things we're doing with this pilot study is also looking at what do people want to do with these vehicles? Do they want to just stay in the city or go out to Abu Dhabi or Dubai? And if that's the case, we have to involve the municipalities and energy companies and look at other charging stations. What's the infrastructure going to look like, and what amount of money are the authorities willing to spend outside of Masdar City in order to support electric vehicles?"
Frost said that Masdar is also keen on involving other EV makers. "We have had discussions with other parties," said Frost. "We have a desire to expand the pilot, for the benefit of ourselves and other car makers."
But the summit wasn't all about power grids and charging stations; you can't get excited about the future of transportation without having some sexy EV to gaze upon. Unfortunately, only three large car makers rolled out their versions of the future; Lexus had its larger LS 600h hybrid sedan on display, as well as its latest hybrid, the CT 200h hatchback, which will go on sale here next month. Mitsubishi was there with its iMiev, too, but Mercedes was by far the most forward-thinking car maker on the floor, with its highlight being the beautiful F800 Style concept hybrid. It's powertrain system will be used on the next-generation S-Class within three years.
Along with the Smart Electric Drive, the German brand had a cutaway model of its Blue Zero Trilogy fuel cell car. This hydrogen-powered vehicle is even further down the road from EVs, considering that hydrogen fuelling stations are even more scarce than electric charging locations. But Mercedes's electric cars are already undergoing testing in Europe (see road test on this page), and the car maker sees EVs as a stop gap before hydrogen cars become a viable solution.
When it comes to alternative transportation, the energy summit in Abu Dhabi provided at least a little encouragement about the future; we seem to have moved on from the original focus of the electric car towards finding ways of making it a viable alternative for real life.
For more stories about the World Future Energy Summit, visit http://www.thenational.ae/energysummit.