Saturday, October 17, 2009

Infrastructure, schminfrastructure

Recently plenty of electric car enthusiasts, environmentalists and all other folks turned up in the Canberra rain and cold for the first ever National Electric Car Festival, organized by the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.

For me it was an incredible event - a chance to meet and talk with figures from the landscape of EV's in Australia, and to see a new reality of clean, fuss-free and efficient personal transport.

In the picture I'm standing next to the 1915 Detroit Electric, one of two that were on show, and of many that tooled around the streets of Australia nearly a hundred years ago.

Do we need infrastructure for electric vehicles to take hold and begin to provide great clean transport for Aussies? Clearly not, seeing these vehicles - the demonstrations of ingenuity and relevance going back over the past century puts the lie to the idea that special preparations are needed before we can start with EV's here.

However to capitalize on all the promise of clean air, efficient transport and smarter energy that EV's are part of then there are lots of other great innovations which work alongside EV's.

I spent a bit of time chatting to Ben Keneally, Head of Marketing and External Affairs for Better Place Australia, at the Better Place stand. Ben assured me that the distinctive blue Better Place charging bollard was no mere concept mockup, but a real prototype.

If we don't need infrastructure to bring on electric cars, why Better Place?

Well, here's my take on it: electric cars are inevitable, and good job too since we need them to help save the planet. Early adopters, tech geeks and those concerned about the environment are queueing up to buy EV's and for the most part this vanguard is happy to just plug their new wheels into the fast-charging 240V AC outlets we have in Australia.

But if we have EV's and don't have a Better Place then we're losing out on a raft of other great benefits that can come with pure electric personal transport.

As Ben explained Better Place is really in the business of being a demand side energy management company. An EV driver is a energy demanding kind of person. And for all of the great convenience, efficiency and utility that running cars on electricity can give, you need the partnership between the two.

So what are these benefits?

Before I start - let me just say that this is not a feature report or a sales pitch for Better Place. Although I definitely want to see them succeed, I don't pretend to know what they offer and what they don't. But more importantly, here I want to talk about what companies like them could bring to the EV party, in the ideal world.

What a great EV oriented demand side energy company do for the new cadre of electric motorists can be summed up thusly: just-in-time energy inventory.

JIT is the efficient practice that made industry giants out of companies like Dell. Its closely allied to Lean Manufacturing which made Toyota king of the hill in vehicle manufacturing. Its tenets are own and hold only what you need, just when you need it. Eliminate waste wherever possible.

When I fill up my current dinosaur burning Prius with petrol, I am carrying around enough fuel to drive to Sydney. It sloshes around in my petrol tank and does no-one any good, weighing the car down and actually costing me in energy to transport it, and in the opportunity cost of owning the fuel when I don't need it. And then a month or more later when I finally get through all that petrol, I go and fill it back up to full again.

When you think about it like that it is incredibly wasteful. If I took the approach of only filling up at the gas station when I actually needed it, and put the balance of the money into my mortgage instead I'd save thousands.

So why do I waste thousands of dollars this way? Why does everyone? Because with petrol you have all of the inconvenience of driving in to a petrol station, and waiting in line to fill up before queueing to pay. I don't want to repeat that charade any more than I have to so I pay thousands over all the years for the convenience of being able to carry around a lot more petrol than I need.

With electricity you get all that convenience for free - if you have a Better Place around to make it possible. Smart charging points, micro-energy accounting, energy market aware charging policies, and smart grids: all things that make for EV's that can take an active role in their own energy use. Vehicles that work for us, to our command, charging up just as needed, when its best saving us money, at the same time as saving the environment.

Just-in-time energy for transport is the promise of demand side EV power management, and companies like Better Place are stepping in to fill a great opportunity in this niche, by supplying the charging points, battery swap facilities and other paraphenalia that people and corporate entities might want to cater for the EV revolution.

But above all the physical manifestation of this sort of hardware infrastructure is the software infrastructure: all the business solutions that need to be in place so I can buy automatically $0.85 worth of electricity while I'm parked in the supermarket carpark.

We don't need infrastructure to have EV's - but we'd be mad not to get infrastructure to make EV's be the best they can be.

I like the convenience that I now enjoy with buying songs from iTunes over the internet: I look forward to that coming to my personal transport, and me not having to do anything special to enjoy it - certainly not queueing up in a dirty malodorous petrol station.