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12 October 2012

Tesla wants to roll out a massive solar charging network

Game changer for electric vehicles?

By Chris Lo

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.   

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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.