24 January 2013
Conference report: ‘Enhancing the business case of electric transport’

A new and more integrated view on electric mobility is beginning to appear in Europe.  That summarizes the outcome of the recent e-harbours conference on e-mobility in Malmö.  The conference, shed a new light on a range of e-mobility topics, showing that electric cars, boats and harbor cranes begin to be considered as more than just stand-alone innovations. As the e-harbours team at Robert Gordon University noted in their concluding remarks at the end of the conference, electric vehicles can become  an indispensable balancing element in Smart Energy Systems. An important side-effect of this integration is, that the business case for electric mobility will become more profitable.

It all centers around the core of most electric transport solutions: the battery. Yes, it is expensive, it has low energy-intensity, which means it demands a lot of space for the energy it can provide, and it generally takes a long time to charge.  The limitations of the current generation of batteries become visible, when we compare a modern conventional fuel driven car with an up-to-date electric car. The limited range that a standard battery-pack can deliver (150 to 300 kilometers) is the most hotly debated  problem.  What is more, the price of the battery pack is so high (€ 10.000 up to € 20.000), that it makes a new electric car very expensive compared to conventional cars.

Especially in city centers, the advantages of electric transport are clear: e-mobility produces very low levels of noise and pollution (CO2, NOx, particles) and can be powered by renewable energy sources, helping communities to reach their climate goals. That is an important driver for municipalities all over Europe to stimulate electric transport.  Presentations at the e-harbours conference from energy company E.on and the City of Malmö and from the city of Zaanstad exemplify the different policies that are being developed locally.  Perhaps they could be supported more by national policies. As one of the keynote speakers at the Malmö conference, Leevon Tian of battery-giant BYD remarked, the Chinese central government has bluntly declared that ‘electric transport is the way of the future’,  greatly enhancing the business case for e-mobility on the national level. European governments are not yet prepared to go that far. This probably will make the business case for a large scale infrastructure investment in electric transport, like Siemens advocates (a trolley system for lorry’s on the highways), difficult to realize in Europe.

But an innovative combination of private companies, utilities, researchers and local governments from 11 European countries shows how progress can be made: Marcus Ljungqvist (City of Malmö) presented the European program Green eMotion, that develops a wide-ranging international network of charging points for electric vehicles. A very important effort, not the least because it stimulates the adoption of standardized charging systems and procedures all over the European Union.

Nowadays, the business case of electric transport still seems not positive enough to seduce more than a handful of individual consumers and businesses to invest. But several companies are working on solutions to improve that situation, the Danish company Better Place being an outstanding example. Mikkel Westenholz from Better Place explained how they make buying an electric car much cheaper (you do not have to buy the battery anymore, you can lease it) and get rid of the infamous range-anxiety by offering drivers a dense network of charging posts. The company offers drivers a choice: simply charge the battery (which still takes some time), or replace it with a brand new, fully charged battery in a few minutes.  Better Place considers itself a service company, that sells kilometers to its customers, not electric cars or batteries.

In the meantime, the development of electric boating begins to pick up pace. As the sister program of e-harbours, Clean North Sea Shipping, showed at the conference, boats consume amazing amounts of energy(in some cases Megawatts). Ships that are equipped with conventional diesel engines cause disturbing levels of emissions both at seas and in ports. These emissions can be harmful to workers and inhabitants of harbour areas. At the conference, two projects presented research directed towards the reduction of emissions in harbour areas. The European program Green-Efforts investigates the different possibilities to improve the CO2 footprint of harbours through a reduction in energy use, and a cleaner energy mix. A very promising research program. On a more practical level, the Hordaland Maritime Miljøselskap AS works on an innovative concept that provides electrical power to cruise ships moored in the harbour of Bergen (Norway). The electricity is delivered by a tanker, equipped with LNG fuel cells and batteries.

Ships consume staggering amounts of energy, so they need much bigger battery packs than cars. The sheer size of these batteries has attracted the attention of Smart Energy System specialists. The hybrid ferries that CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd) is bringing into service on the Western coast of Scotland feature battery packs so huge, they can play a role in balancing the power grid of the ports they serve. The ferry can pick up cheap electricity from local wind turbines in times of an energy surplus, and deliver power back to the local grid when the winds are low. These possibilities enhance the business case both of the hybrid ferries and of the Smart Energy System in the harbour, making it easier to incorporate wind turbines and PV systems in the Grid. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, preparations are under way to build a Smart Marina that uses the batteries of rental boats as a temporary storage for excess power from PV-systems.

Can we play the same trick with electric cars? The battery of a single car has only a modest power supply to offer. But the combination of a thousand cars produces an impressive battery pack – when the individual vehicles can be integrated into a Smart Energy System.  Just like the battery pack of the hybrid ferry, the combination of car batteries then could operate as a storage system to balance the Grid.  The Malmö showcase of e-harbours,located in the Western Harbour,  will be one of the experiments that test these Vehicle-To-Grid solutions.  When this approach proves viable, it would enhance the business case of renewable sources of electricity (it is easier to incorporate them in the Grid), of Smart Energy Systems (they get more balancing power to play with), and of electric cars (that can command a fee for their service to the Grid). The e-harbours conference on electric mobility in Malmö made us think, that this type of integration could become an important driver for developing electric transport, in harbour areas in Europe,  and eventually in European countries at large.

# For impressions from this very successful e-harbours conference, that drew a large audience to the Turning Torso in Malmö,  please follow the link below:

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