Local innovations in electric and solar vehicles are set to spur adoption. SA mulls electric travel.

Electric vehicles and, more specifically, solar-powered electric vehicles, are still something the average South African considers an impossibility, says Carel Snyman, an energy specialist and consultant.

Snyman exhibited the South African National Energy Research Institute's (Saneri's) solar powered electric utility vehicle at the Renewable Energy Expo last week, which formed part of the four-day Solar World Congress, held at the Sandton Convention Centre.

The small electric vehicle displayed is not commercially available, but was designed to “demonstrate that we can make such a vehicle in SA – with limited resources and little time”, says Snyman. He believes people still regard electric cars as slow, limited in the distance they can travel, and very expensive.

According to Snyman, the range these cars' batteries provide has traditionally been a barrier to uptake, but his personal experience with an electric car has convinced him of its potential. “I lived with an electric vehicle as my first choice commuting option for seven years, during the Eskom demonstration programme. General Motors (then Delta) was kind enough to provide a Corsa bakkie, which we converted into electric propulsion in the mid-1990s.

“The range on the Optima lead acid batteries we used was about 80km. I always found a plug point to recharge whenever I needed one and used to recharge at every place I stopped – meetings, action cricket, friends, even filling stations.“

Snyman says it cost around R4 to fully recharge the batteries, translating to more or less R5 per 100km.

“Expensive services were something of the past. It used no oil and no fuel, did not make a noise, and had great performance: 0-100km/h in nine seconds.”

Joules in the rough

Electric vehicles can be powered by any means, with solar and hydro energy being cleaner, more renewable alternatives to coal-based electricity.

According to Saneri, one hectare of solar cells can produce 50 000kWh of energy during a five-hour sunshine day. On this surface (roof tops, for example) 180 000 mega joules of energy can be generated by photovoltaic (PV) cells in one day. This is enough energy to allow an electric city car to drive about 250 000km, states Saneri, adding that the energy cost amounts to more or less 40c/km.

Because the energy itself is supplied free, only the solar cells need to be paid for, but the cost of these is still high. However, once paid, the cost remains the same for 20 years or so, says Saneri.

According to Snyman, some reasons for the poor uptake of electric cars include ignorance and apathy. “I believe the public is not looking to do the right things and is badly informed. People only change when they hurt.”

Locally, Snyman believes there is potential for significant market penetration for electric cars.

“However, a number of things need to be in place and a favourable environment needs to be created by various stakeholders in industry.”

He argues that confidence should also be established with vehicle manufacturers that uptake will happen, and with the public that the backup will be available once they drive electric vehicles.

According to Snyman, Saneri is establishing a Green Transport Centre, in Midrand, positioned next to the highway for maximum exposure. ”Here we will show green transport technologies and educate the public on what we believe the future is.”

Awaiting arrival

SA's first fully electric consumer vehicle, the Joule, developed by Cape Town-based Optimal Energy, made its debut at the Paris Motor Show, in October last year, and is set to become commercially available next year.

Exhibited at the recent South African Automotive Week, in Port Elizabeth, the zero-emissions battery-powered electric vehicle has a range of 300km and a top speed of 135km/h.

The five-seater is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack, with each battery module offering 200km range each. The battery charges using a standard 220V home outlet, with seven hours of charge time required for a 200km range. The batteries will have to be leased separately, however, and are not included in the purchase price.

Electric vehicles use 20% of the energy of a normal car, according to Optimal Energy, and when charged using renewable technology such as hydro or solar, there is a 100% reduction in pollution.

Rands and sense

In terms of cost, Snyman argues that an electric car is very different to a petrol car, and claims it offers more value. “When we compare 'vehicles', we are not comparing apples with apples. Take the electric motor for instance, its life should be much longer than a petrol engine – and at the end can be used in the next generation of cars – it holds its value.

“The same for the batteries in terms of raw materials – these get recycled. Fuel, however, is burnt and gone – we are left with pollution.”

He adds that the battery of an electric car can be used for emergency power supply to one's home, or on a national scale to support the electric utility. “If we had millions of electric cars we would not need the price increases that Eskom is asking for now.”

Snyman says electric cars can ultimately cost less than a petrol car because the technology producing and operating electric cars can only get cheaper, while the technology foundation the petrol car relies on will only become increasingly expensive.

Biking with batteries

Also on display at last week's Renewable Energy Expo was the Zoota electric bike, a battery-powered bicycle designed as an environmentally friendly transport option for short distances.

Powered by a lithium-ion battery, the bike allows riders to travel around at a top speed of 25km/h, for at least 25km, depending on their weight. The lighter the physical load (the rider) the further can be travelled on a full charge.

Greenbike's Michel Reolon, who helped develop the Zoota, says a full charge takes about 4.5 hours, from a standard wall outlet. He adds that the battery has no memory block, meaning one can 'top up' the charge, and not have to wait until the battery is completely depleted.

According to Reolon, the battery will last for 1 500 charge cycles (from completely empty to fully charged), which translates to roughly 37 000km travel distance. “The cost is more or less 25c per charge,” he adds. “Compare that to what you would get for 25c of petrol – roughly a tot glass – and think how far you could travel on that.”

However, this means if one uses up a full charge every day, the battery will have to be replaced after about four years.

The battery is similar to that used in consumer electronics, and Reolon predicts battery capabilities will improve further. “Battery technology has been revolutionised by laptops and cellphones; they pioneered a jump in battery technology, which has helped forward transport technology.”

According to Reolon, the perception of electric bikes and electric transport in general is typically divided into two camps – those that see the opportunities and those that see the challenges.

“More environmentally-conscious people look at it from that perspective and imagine the possibilities, while others see the pitfalls associated with it. It's really for a specific type of person and market.”

Solar spinning

Reolon says the company is working on developing a solar model, whereby the battery could be charged via PV technology, as opposed to electricity. This would reduce emissions even further. The company aims to make it available by early next year, states Reolon.

The goal is to create a device that could be used for multiple charging purposes, so one could charge a laptop, cellphone and so forth.

According to Reolon, battery capacity is improving every year, and the price is likely to come down eventually as well. “Battery technology is moving in the right direction, and PV panels are also becoming more efficient.” He adds, however, that there is a price attached to greater efficiency, and while 40% efficiency panels may become available in the next few years, it may take time before they are in a manageable price range.

Reolon notes that while green alternatives for transport may not be a price-wise thing to do yet, “there's a huge emerging market. It's a whole new world developing.”

This article was originally written by Lezette Engelbrecht, ITWeb junior copy editor Johannesburg, on the 23 Oct 2009.

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