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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.