Tesla wants to roll out a massive solar charging network

Game changer for electric vehicles?

Last month, US electric car manufacturer Tesla shot up a few places on the list of things keeping oil executives up at night. The company unveiled the first stage of its planned high-speed, solar-powered Supercharger network for topping up its Model S electric car.

Starting with six stations just launched in California, the company plans to expand the charging points to other US locations, enabling, according to Tesla, "fast, purely electric travel from Vancouver to San Diego, Miami to Montreal and Los Angeles to New York". The manufacturer has also revealed plans to bring the Supercharger to Europe and Asia in the second half of 2013.

Elon Musk, billionaire tech entrepreneur and Tesla's CEO, has touted the Supercharger as a solution to the biggest obstacle for electric vehicle adoption – making longer journeys feasible. While Tesla's high-speed charging system might still be a ways off from a two-minute petrol top-up, it can provide the power for 150 miles of travel with a 30-minute charge. Tesla, with typical American understatement, compares it to "an adrenaline shot for your battery".

Pure on-site solar power generation provides a definitive answer to those who criticise EV charging points for using electricity generated by fossil fuel power plants. What's more, the Supercharger's services come at no cost, freeing drivers from the fluctuations of petrol and electricity prices, as well as helping them offset the Model S's minimum price tag of just under $50,000.

But major obstacles still remain if Tesla is to bring the Model S, and the wider concept of electric road travel, into the mainstream. Financially, Tesla is on relatively shaky ground, having taken $465m in loans from the US Department of Energy without yet having turned a profit. With Model S production hampered by supply problems and Republicans in Congress pushing for a speedy loan repayment plan, the manufacturer can't afford any more issues if it expects to fulfil its grand vision.   

Financial worries aside, the Supercharger's most serious technical issue is that it will only work for Tesla's Model S sedan and future models. The system won't even work for the company's own Roadster and Model X electric vehicles, let alone those manufactured by other companies, and even then the required supercharging hardware only comes as standard on the most expensive 85kWh incarnation of the Model S.

While Tesla can feasibly claim that it’s the Supercharger's unique hardware that stops other EVs using it, the system's exclusivity to one brand creates further fragmentation in a fragile market whose success depends on simplicity. With competing fast-charge systems like the CHAdeMO and the SAE Combo Charger in development or available, the future recharging landscape could be a confusing one for customers. If Tesla's hardware exclusivity is a grab for market share, it's one that could come at the expense of EV development as a whole.

Similarly, it's easy to be cynical about Tesla's offer of free solar recharging, which could be seen as an effort to encourage early adopters before introducing fees at a later date. But at this early stage, perhaps it's counter-productive to scoff at a project that is offering drivers the most realistic opportunity so far to enjoy free, sustainable travel by car. If Tesla overcomes its problems and the American public buys in, this big idea has the potential to genuinely challenge road transport's gas-guzzling status quo.

Electric car. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.