The New York Times ran an article that I suspect few people read, because it was in the middle of section 1 opposite a bunch of desperate retail ads for SALES-SALES-SALES, but it points at the soft spot of the move toward electric vehicles (EVs): how to get them charged when you are not at home (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/business/energy-environment/02electric.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss). Henrik Lund, a professor of energy planning at Aalborg University in Denmark, puts his finger on it: “There is a psychological barrier for consumers when their car is dependent on a battery station.”
In this article, Palo Alto CA-based, privately held Better Place is teaming up with the largest Danish electric utility to put charging stations up across Denmark, and they have $100 million to spend doing it. Kudos, but it is grid electricity, and it tries the imagination to think of grid plug-ins every few miles on the huge US Interstate Highway system. Works for Denmark though.
We have relatively few EVs on the road today, and one of the big reasons is just that: how do you get them re-charged? That is not to say that the EV movement is not taking off — it clearly is, but it is taking off from a different runway, so to speak. Just to be clear, yes we are aware of Tesla, Fisker, Th!nk Electric, and several other small companies with slick-looking EVs and HEVs, but they are not very common yet.
If you look at the recent announcements from Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) and Oak Park MI-based Azure Dynamics* (TSX: AZD and Pink Sheets: AZDDF.PK; http://www.azuredynamics.com/), one of the most high-profile EV announcements in recent months relates to delivery vans: the super-successful (in Europe) Ford Transit Connect: http://www.fordvehicles.com/transitconnect/. Point being that this EV is designed for vans that have routes to drive, especially urban routes with lots of start-and-stop traffic — very little open-road driving, so the mileage to “empty” is not an issue. There should be thousands of these puppies on the road when they show up in select Ford showrooms in 2010.
In fact, from a non-scientific scan of the market, it appears that most of the pure EV announcements (not all, but most) relate to commercial vehicles. Look at Kansas City-based Smith Electric Vehicles, whose website says they have led the EV market for 80 years (http://www.smithelectricvehicles.com/) — all the vehicles they show are commercial vans and trucks. Makes sense, of course, because they all go back to the same place every night and can plug in. Smith announced at the end of October that they will introduce a postal delivery vehicle: perfect application.
The much-heralded but perhaps under-funded commercial vehicle from Anderson IN-based privately held Bright Automotive is also clearly aimed at a barn-stored commercial user who can bed down vehicles next to a plug every evening. http://www.brightautomotive.com.
Same with Torrance, CA-based Enova Systems* (NYSE Amex: ENA; http://www.enovasystems.com), which creates drivetrains for hybrids and pure EVs for some of the largest commercial-vehicle manufacturers in the world (Freightliner, Laidlaw, First Auto Works of China). The funding — partly because of tax breaks and stimulus money — is in commercial vehicles.
But back to the NYT story. In order for ME to turn in my one-horse-open-shay for an EV, I have to be able to drive on the open road without worrying about finding a plug for my car to recharge. I’ve pushed cars that ran out of gas, and it’s no fun, but at least there are gas stations pretty much all over the place. Without that infrastructure , there is some nail-chewing about driving an EV.
Apparently there are some jurisdictions that are trying to pioneer the infrastructure for EVs. There has been a fair amount of attention paid to privately held Campbell CA-based Coulomb Technology (http://www.coulombtech.com/), which has been signing deals with a variety of municipalities, most recently Houston, according to their website. They are conducting demonstrations with stand-alone charging stations, but most of the ones they are installing today seem to be grid-connected — which probably doesn’t cut it for my drive through the Catskills. There was a demo of interest in Washington DC this year, where Coulomb worked with San Diego-based privately held Envision Solar (http://envisionsolar.com/) and New Castle PA-based Axion Power International* (OTCBB: AXPW.OB; http://www.axionpower.com). The product was a pretty slick-looking, no-emissions, solar-powered charging station with inexpensive longlasting PbC batteries to make it work when the sun don’t shine. Sounds good, looks good, is good — but how many miles of highway would have to be served in order for the Clampetts to get from the Appalchians to Beverly Hills?
This morning there was an announcement that Nissan will introduce an EV with a 200-mile range — in 2015 (http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2009/12/02/nissan_super_battery/ ). They will use a lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide cathode (say that five times fast). But something that’s 5 years out has little effect on people who are considering buying a car today.
The big lithium-ion battery companies — Ener1 Inc, A123 Systems, and Johnson Controls/Saft — all seem interested in grid-connected battery applications. That is, they are interested in storing electricity generated in nonpeak hours for peak distribution (very helpful, by the way, but no help for my car). But I have not read anyplace of anyone wanting to install lithium-ion batteries in solar car-charging stations out in BFE; they’re too expensive, and they might get wet (which is a no-no for lots of exotic batteries). Ener1 Inc is Nasdaq: HEV; http://www.ener1.com. A123 Systems is Nasdaq: AONE; http://www.a123systems.com. Johnson Controls is NYSE: JCI; http://www.johnsoncontrols.com/.
Axion Power’s supply agreement with Alpharetta GA-based Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE; http://www.exide.com/) looks like a candidate, with the carbon-based PbC technology, to provide an affordable, long-lasting battery for a charging station. And the Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium has a lot of information on souped-up lead-acid batteries that work-better-last-longer, but still have the same killer problems of short life and low rechargeability that makes them dowdy wallflowers at the EV prom.
All told it may be up to the Coulombs, the Better Places, the Envision Solars, the Axion Powers, the Exides to come up with the ideas and demos for charging stations (and they have). But like the Interstate Highway system itself, a good way to get EVs on the highways would be for the federal government to puts a priority on charging stations. More stimulus, anyone?
Please do your own diligence before investing in any stock. We do not recommend stocks — we just write about interesting companies and interesting developments.
*client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog.