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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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