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Fuelling the alternatives

By / 8 years ago / Features / No Comments

Blue skies, palm trees waving in a gentle breeze, the shining sea lapping gently against beautiful beaches… the US state of Hawaii can lay claim to being a paradise on earth, at least so far as its tourism authority is concerned, and governor Neil Abercrombie is determined to keep it that way.

He is a keen supporter of electric vehicles and was happy to endorse rental fleet Enterprise’s decision to start offering battery-powered cars to customers arriving at Honolulu International Airport and to set up a charging station there.

‘Such vehicles are an essential part of Hawaii’s transition to a clean energy economy,’ he states. The aim is for 70% of the state’s energy to come from clean sources by 2030.

‘We plan to expand the locations that offer electric vehicles to many of our 29 neighbourhood, resort, and airport branch locations in order to meet the growing needs of renters,’ said Paul Kopel, vice president and general manager of operations for Enterprise Holdings in Hawaii.

The increased use of electric cars is being supported by the state of Hawaii Electric Vehicle Ready Grant Program and the Enterprise charging locations form part of a network deployed by Better Place Hawaii under the scheme’s auspices. In another initiative, the Hawaii State Energy Office has just released EV Stations Hawaii, an app that plots the locations of publicly available charging stations.

Government support of electric vehicles – sometimes through grants that bridge the gap between the premium price of a battery-powered car and its petrol or diesel equivalent – is viewed as vital in many countries if their use is to be encouraged. That is particularly the case given that they face an uphill battle in some markets according to KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey 2013.

‘Just one in 10 of all survey participants think battery electrified vehicles will be the next big thing,’ the survey observes. Despite the availability of subsidies, buyers remain wary of making the commitment although attitudes vary strongly from one country to another.

While Russian respondents were optimistic about the technology’s potential, Chinese respondents were pessimistic, even though it is strongly supported in the country’s Five Year Plan.

To overcome these reservations vehicle manufacturers need to redouble their efforts to cut the cost of batteries and the drivetrain, so says Oliver Hazimeh, automotive cleantech transportation leader at PwC.

‘Simply passing high initial development costs on to the customer is not a long-term option and it is not viable to rely on long-term government incentives either,’ he observed: what government gives, government can also take away. ‘Auto companies need to deploy smart vehicle and technology platforms and global partnerships to achieve economies of scale.’

Range limitations between recharges remain a key concern, but one that fleets can address by deploying electric vehicles on short-range urban work rather than attempting to use them on trips that push them to the edge of their capabilities.

Amsterdam, Netherlands-based taxi fleet Taxi-E runs 13 zero-emission Nissan LEAF cabs in and around the city and Ruud Zandvliet, one of the executives behind the company, says that they are ideal for this sort of application.

Because they are never too far away from a charging point they can be quick-charged two or three times daily so that they are always available. That addresses another concern that potential users have: the worry that their vehicle will have to be plugged into a power point for hour after wearisome hour before it can be used again.

‘There are some 3,000 taxis in Amsterdam so there is obviously plenty of scope to reduce emissions even further if operators are prepared to switch to electric,’ Zandvliet says.

Turning to Switzerland, 10 Nissan LEAF cabs are scheduled to go into service in Zurich later this year. Underlining the fact that the proper provision of infrastructure is vitally important if electric vehicles are to be a success, they are being supported by a network of fast-chargers as part of plans by the city fathers to ensure that 15% of the cabs on Zurich’s streets are electric by 2015.

The chargers are capable of replenishing a battery to 80% of its capacity in just 30 minutes: but with many customers arriving with batteries with a reasonable amount of charge left in them, the average stay is just 15 minutes.

Electric cars do of course have the advantage of low running costs once they have been acquired. In many markets the cost of the power they use is modest, tax concessions can be claimed for them, fewer moving parts means low maintenance bills and they can gain access to city centres without the owners having to face congestion charges.

How long the batteries they employ will last before requiring replacement – and how much those replacements will cost – remains a concern however.

It has prompted several manufacturers to offer batteries under separate lease agreements, which in some cases has resulted in clashes with residual value guides. They contend that they cannot project a residual value for a vehicle whose power source may be under separate ownership and such a stance naturally affects contract hire rates.

The limitations of pure battery vehicles and the continued impact of those limitations on their appeal mean that respondents to the KPMG survey referred to earlier placed more faith in both plug-in and non-plug-in hybrids and in battery electric cars with range extenders.

As if to endorse this faith, last year saw Europcar make 30 range-extended Opel Amperas available for hire from outlets in Amsterdam, Brussels in Belgium, and Frankfurt in Germany. ‘Ampera has a range of more than 500 kilometres and combines all of the capabilities our customers expect from a car for everyday all-round use,’ said Opel e-mobility launch director, Enno Fuchs.

‘Japan has already taken to hybrids in a big way,’ observes the KPMG study. ‘In May 2012 alone a fifth of all vehicles registered were hybrids although that figure excludes minicars.

‘Consequently there is little expectation among Japanese auto executives that battery-powered cars will be in high demand, especially given the worries over electricity supplies in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.’

That underlines a perennial difficulty with battery power. While the streets of a country’s capital may be made cleaner and greener as a consequence of an absence of exhaust emissions, the low-grade brown coal that fuels the power station 200 miles away that produces the power the batteries need, may be causing widespread air pollution and be a contributory cause to periodic downpours of acid rain that destroy trees and rivers.

One of the most interesting aspects of the KPMG study is the faith so many respondents have in the potential of fuel cells. While only 17% of respondents felt that vehicles powered by them would eventually take the lead – a lower percentage than was recorded when a similar study was conducted in 2012 – in China they were viewed as the best bet by 44% of respondents.

‘As fuel cell technology is also part of China’s Five Year Plan there is no doubt that both BAIC and SAIC are investing in the production of fuel cell cars,’ says the study. ‘SAIC even plans to mass-produce its fuel cell model in 2015.’

While cynics often observe that the widespread introduction of fuel cells is 20 years away and was 20 years away 20 years ago – in other words, it is always just over the horizon – General Motors and Honda aim to shrink that time scale. They have announced a joint-venture agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel cell systems and hydrogen storage technologies with 2020 the target date. Both companies have plenty of fuel cell experience.

Launched in 2007, GM’s Project Driveway programme has accumulated almost 3m miles of real-world driving with a fleet of 119 hydrogen-powered vehicles. Honda began offering the FCX on a lease basis as long ago as 2002 and has deployed 85 in the USA and Japan, including its successor the FCX Clarity.

GM and Honda point out that fuel cell vehicles can operate on renewable energy from sources such as wind and biomass, the only emission they produce is water vapour and they can offer a range of up to 400 miles.

The appeal of gaseous fuels varies hugely from market to market and is significantly influenced by tax and by availability, with units dispensing compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) a rare site at publicly accessible fuel stations in some countries.

That need not be a drawback, however, so far as those commercial vehicle operators whose vans and trucks operate locally and always return to the same depot at night are concerned.

One company that has embraced CNG with alacrity is TNT Express Italy. Last year it placed an order for 115 CNG-powered Iveco Daily vans that are being used to deliver packages and parcels in Rome and elsewhere in central Italy.

In Italy switching from diesel to CNG means a cut in fuel costs of around 40% according to Iveco and a reduction in CO2 output of from 5% to 8%: a fall of 370 tonnes annually so far as TNT Express Italy is concerned.

‘It is the best short and medium-term solution for the reduction of harmful emissions and an effective alternative so far as the high costs of fuel and transport are concerned,’ commented chief executive officer, Uffe Ekstedt. 

Lead-carbon batteries will be the "next big thing" so far as electric vehicle technology is concerned if the USA’s Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium (ALABC) has its way.

Along with the US Department of Energy it has been involved in a project managed by Ecotality North America to assess the durability of lead-carbon batteries in the high-rate partial state-of-charge operation of a hybrid vehicle. It did so by running a Honda Civic HEV retrofitted with lead-carbon UltraBattery modules sourced from East Penn Manufacturing on courier work in and around Phoenix Arizona.

The Honda covered over 160,000kms in just under two years with no significant loss in battery capacity, according to ALABC. In terms of energy usage it achieved a comparable level of performance to that of a hybrid Civic employing nickel-metal-hydride batteries claims the organisation but at significantly lower cost.

The UltraBattery combines a traditional lead-acid battery with a carbon-enhanced supercapacitor in a single component.

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