Th!nk's Dutch Uncle

By Bill Moore

Posted: 17 Feb 2010

Few people have as much to lose from climate change-induced sea level rises over the next 100 years as do the Dutch, who have been laboring for centuries to both reclaim land while holding back the North Sea. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that electric cars offer an appealing way to cut the nation's carbon footprint and reduce its dependence on imported petroleum. It already has one of the cleanest power generation networks in Europe with 12 of its 13 electric generation plants using combined cycle gas turbines burning natural gas. These are some of the world's most efficient power generation systems with efficiencies nearing 50%. Of course, the Dutch also are investing heavily in offshore wind farms with an installed capacity of 2,225 MW as of 2008.

What prompted me to begin this commentary was a press release from Th!nk, the Norwegian electric car maker, announcing that the City of Amsterdam is offering individual grants up to €45,000 for the purchase of electric vehicles and up to €250,000 for fleets buying 20 or more EVs. The city will also cover 50% of the cost difference between an conventional gasoline car and a comparable electric model. Here's a breakdown of the available grants:

• Up to €15,000 available to buy a single EV
• Up to €25,000 available to buy a single EV van
• Up to €45,000 available to buy a single EV truck or taxi
• Up to €250,000 available to buy fleets of 20 vehicles or more

Th!nk CEO, Richard Canny noted in the press release, "This project from Amsterdam City Council stands out as the most forward-thinking of initiatives in the electric vehicle sector across the whole of Europe.  Business and enterprise is at the heart of any major city, and targeting this sector with such generous subsidies we think will change the face of business transport in the city."

From the perspective of getting more EVs on the road, and helping solidify Th!nk's financial footing, this is a good thing, but it also got me to wondering if it is the smartest way for the Dutch to spend their tax dollars. What if instead of subsidizing EVs, they instead used the money to fund conversions of their current car fleet to run on compressed natural gas, such as what Iran is doing? (Of course Iran sits atop some of the largest gas fields in the world. The Netherlands doesn't). But for the sake of argument, does it make sense from an overall efficiency viewpoint to burn natural gas in a combined cycle turbine to make electricity to charge batteries to run Th!nk city electric cars around Amsterdam, or simply burn it directly in a converted IC engine?

Here's what I came up with. Assuming the those Dutch power plants run at 50% efficiency, by the time the electric power gets to the wheels of the car, I figure the entire system is a bit above 30% efficient; and feel free to correct my math. In contrast, a CNG car's well-to-wheel efficiency somewhere around 15%, and you have the matter of building all those CNG refueling stations; and since the natural gas probably comes from places like Russia, the Middle East and the North Sea, it is not only a depleting resource, but a geopolitically sensitive one as well. Wind power has its issues, but nothing like fossil fuels.

USA EV-Ready Index

While researching this topic a bit, I also came across Th!nk's U.S.A. EV-ready index listing the top American cities it considers prime candidates for the introduction of its electric car. The Th!nk web site notes...
The THINK EV-Ready Cities Index takes into account purchase and usage incentives – such as HOV lane access and infrastructure support – for electric vehicles as well as market fit, which includes factors such as hybrid sales, traffic congestion, EPA non-attainment zone status (air quality), and potential lower-carbon energy sources for vehicle recharging. The index was compiled for THINK by ASG Renaissance, a market research and business services firm located in Dearborn, Mich.
Curiously, Indianapolis, where its EnerDel batteries are going to come from, and the largest city in Indiana, didn't make the top 15. When you consider that you have to have a lot of things wrong about where you live -- air pollution and traffic congestion -- I guess I am glad Omaha isn't on it.

City Purchase/Usage Incentives Market Fit Overall Score
Los Angeles 5.75 3.75 9.50
San Francisco 5.75 3.25 9.00
Chicago (tie) 5.75 2.15 7.90
New York (tie) 5.75 2.15 7.90
San Diego 5.75 2.00 7.75
Portland 5.55 1.95 7.50
Sacramento 5.75 1.50 7.25
Newark 4.85 2.15 7.00
Seattle 3.30 3.25 6.55
Atlanta 4.85 1.20 6.05
Denver 4.65 0.80 5.45
Boston 2.40 1.90 4.30
Washington DC 0.80 3.05 3.85
Philadelphia 2.40 1.70 4.10
Phoenix 1.70 1.90 3.60

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