Car Wars: The return of the Electric Vehicle

2 02 2010

Better Place Car (Renault) - Source:

While covering the 2010 EDTA Conference in Washington on electric vehicles for Clean Horizon Consulting, I learned that the first cars were actually electric vehicles. It is only under Thomas Edison’s advice that Ford chose to develop a model around a combustion engine. Edison knew that in terms of energy storage, it is hard to be more efficient than fossil fuels. Then, the technology struck back in the aftermath of the 1973 and 1979 oil crises. This eventually led to some product developments – for those who remember the infamous GM EV1. At that time, electric vehicles with its multiple drawbacks (range constraints, time to charge, lack of infrastructure, etc.) could not threaten the more flexible and established technology that was the combustion engine. Can the story be any different this time?

During the conference, even the most adamant electric vehicle (EV) evangelist knew that mass adoption of EVs will come down to one thing only: customer experience. Early adoption is never an issue especially for a technology that can appeal to both geeks and environmentalists. The real trick though is to secure mass adoption. This is actually where the technology failed in the past. You have to provide the average consumer with at least an on-par experience compared to what she is used to getting with her current car. This is all the more challenging that a seamless customer experience requires the emergence of an ecosystem linking a nebula of actors. If you wake-up at 7AM to get to this important meeting and your car is not  charged up, who should you call? The car manufacturer? the utility? the charging station manufacturer? All of them? For those of you who tried to get a Google Nexus while conserving your current T-Mobile account, you know that seamless interactions between companies’ customer services rarely self-emerge.

While the industry is still fighting to define standards, a self-emerging ecosystem seems like an utopia. As a consequence, EV will struggle through the next decade, slowly grabbing market share but growing slower than some could have expected. However, we should be aware of two important wild cards: Better Place and Smith. Read the rest of this entry »

The future of fuels – Biofuels

20 01 2010


Ethanol and other biofuels have come under a lot of heat especially during the 2008 food crisis as most of them are derived from alimentary crops like corn (US), sugar cane (Brazil) and palm oil (Malaysia and Indonesia). It is almost commonly accepted that to become a sustainable part of energy portfolio new technologies will have to come online – the infamous second generation biofuels (e.g. made out of cellulose).

Governments have high hopes for renewable fuels for both strategic and environmental reasons. That’s why countries like the US establish very ambitious mandates like the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. This regulation stipulates that by 2022 about a fourth of the daily demand of gasoline (total demand ˜400 million gallons) comes from renewable resources.

While this number is great news to stimulate technological innovation in second-generation fuels, a more pragmatic look at the future reveals some tough (yet surmountable) hurdles ahead. I don’t think I have much to add to the real challenges technology wise, so let’s pretend that we manage to secure ˜100 million gallon of renewable fuel per day. In addition, I will not get into the wells-to-wheels controversy as to whether biofuels are actually beneficial as a whole or not. Allow me to focus instead on operations, as I think it is an issue too often overlooked in the biofuels debate. Read the rest of this entry »