Why you should care
Because a Dutch startup wants to make charging an electric car as easy as filling a gas tank.
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Electric cars have supposedly been the future of transport for decades, but most of us still don’t use them.
Prices have dropped and designs have improved, but the transition is hampered by an infrastructural chicken and egg problem: What comes first, cars or charging stations?
The answer, surprisingly, may come from the Netherlands — where they are shifting out of idle and into drive with a plan to create the world’s densest fast-charging network for electric vehicles (EV). The aim? To entice drivers to switch over to electric while providing more options to those who already have.
We want to give electric vehicle drivers real freedom to go anywhere.
By the end of 2016, Dutch residents will be able to use 201 fast-charging stations in a country that’s a tenth the size of California, and users will never be more than 31 miles away from a station.
“We want to give electric vehicle drivers real freedom to go anywhere,” says Michiel Langezaal, co-founder of Fastned, the company building the grid.
That this initiative originated in the Netherlands becomes a whole lot less surprising when you learn that it has the second-largest percentage of electric vehicles of any country — 5 percent — after Norway’s 6.1 percent and way ahead of the U.S.’s 0.6 percent.
To date, it’s also the most populated country to build such a dense network: Japan’s is vastly scattered, Estonia’s is smaller and Norway uses slower chargers. But what makes the Dutch project unique is that it’s a privately funded collaboration between Fastned and ABB, a charger manufacturer.
“Public initiatives often focus first on the needs of the electrical grid, secondly on the needs of the planet and then on the consumer,” says Langezaal. “We’re doing it the other way around. We’re asking, ‘What would the driver want?’ first.”
The answer, according to Fastned, is convenience. It took lobbying efforts, but in 2011 the government finally invited bids for concessions to build electric stations next to existing gas stations, and Fastned won 201 out of 245. Each charging station costs $270,000 to build — and lasts about 15 years — and Fastned will invest a total of $5.5 million.
“They’re like McDonald’s,” says Hans Streng, global head of EV charging at ABB. “They’ll be recognizable from a distance at all the highway gas stations.”
Much like the fast-food joints, these charging spots have distinctive yellow arches. They include four to eight charging points and are covered by a canopy of solar panels to power their lights and security cameras.
The fast chargers work in 15 to 30 minutes – quicker than the “Level 2” type used in most European cities (which take five hours), though admittedly slower than filling a tank with gas. But the price is significantly cheaper — about $14.20 for a full battery or $137 a month for unlimited use.
By being first, Fastned has secured the best locations and now hopes to gain a bigger share of the market that fuels Dutch cars, worth a whopping $3.3 billion a year.
So far, the company’s nine operational stations (construction has been slow because local permits must be issued for each location) receive only five to 10 cars a day. Langezaal says Fastned will be doing well once 50 stations are built and they hit 15 charge sales a day because maintenance and staffing costs are low.
Fastned is happy to play the long game because the founders believe the rise of electric cars is inevitable. EV registrations in the Netherlands have increased more than sevenfold since 2010 and quadrupled between 2012 and 2013.
”There won’t be a sudden jump, but a gradual evolution, just as with every new technology.”
And the company is confident the Dutch government will succeed in its goal of having 200,000 EVs on the roads in 2020 by offering buyers tax breaks and access to parking in Amsterdam.“If these come to charge at least once a week in a Fastned station, we’ll make roughly a 100 million in revenue a year,” says Langezaal.
Governments are under pressure to meet the EU regulation capping CO2 emissions at 95g/km by 2020, and the average non-electric car produces about 128.3g/km. So even with auto manufacturers trying to cut emissions, the number of EVs on the roads needs to increase.
Langezaal believes that the current drive for electric cars is unstoppable. “To know how many cars to expect in the next five years you need to look at the factories worldwide. Nissan is making half a million electric vehicles a year, Renault 100,000, Volkswagen 200,000. … If you add it all up, it’s roughly a million. And they will sell them. They need to.”
Skeptics, however, say electric cars won’t be a dominant fixture anytime soon because changing consumer habits takes time. “There won’t be a sudden jump, but a gradual evolution,” says Thomas Schlick, a partner at strategy consultancy Roland Berger.
And there are those who remain unconvinced the technology is even ready. “Some day, the electric car will be a great product; just not now. It costs too much and it’s inconvenient,” says Bjørn Lomborg, professor at the Copenhagen Business School and director of Copenhagen Consensus Center.
Will there be a leap in electric car ownership? Fastned is taking the theory for a spin, and if all goes according to plan, it hopes to expand to other countries, starting with neighboring Germany or Belgium.
For now, it’s unlikely the yellow arches will start sprouting along highways in the U.S. or Brazil, but this private initiative might be a bright sign to Europeans that the long-awaited future of transportation is finally here.