Archive for Green Technology from South Africa

Joule, the South African Electric Car

by on December 1, 2008 at 8:53 am


[Blogging Tour – South Africa 08] This morning we went to Optimal Energy in Cape Town to meet with CEO Kobus Meiring for a presentation of the South African electric car A.K.A. Joule. Presented last September at the Auto Show in Paris, this promising green vehicle got a lot of attention from the industry, but it will not hit the market until the end of 2010. The goal of Optimal Energy is to compete with the mainstream offering and not only with the other electric cars, that is the reason why it fits 6 passengers and has a 130 km per hour maximum speed. The company does not know which type of lithium battery it will use for the final product yet, and we did not see any drive test. If the final Joule is really as good as it is on the paper, we can expect a bright future for clean automotive. Features include: 200km to 400 km range, 0-100 km in 15 seconds, 0-50 km in 5 seconds, energy cost 4c* /km (compared to 80c/km with petrol, diesel). It will be priced around $22,000.

* This is the South African cent.

Africa joining the electric car craze, with Optimal Energy’s Joule

by on December 1, 2008 at 8:48 am

The entire world hopes to start driving electric cars soon, and Africa, despite its reputation for poor economies, is no exception. Luckily, a South African company called Optimal Energy is working to release a vehicle in 2010.

And unlike the many attempts to make electric cars as small and cheap as possible, the vehicle, called the Joule, will be a highway-speed, multi-passenger model aimed at the same people that buy full-priced four door vehicles, making it a good fit for Europe and the United States.

Optimal has the benefit of strong support from its government, which has put money into the company through a research investment fund. Having such backing gives Optimal the time to pay close attention to its engineering and design choices.

That has resulted in some some uncommon bonuses for buyers, like an optional solar panel integrated with the roof that will help charge the car, and varying seat designs — the standard model will have six seats, three front and three back, but North Americans would likely be more comfortable with four.

One interesting design choice affects both the physical car and its business model. The Joule will have an adjustable chassis that can fit a variety of battery types and sizes, so the company won’t be tied to using a particular technology. The battery will also be offered on a separate lease, to help ease the pain of simultaneously paying for the vehicle and, effectively, several years worth of fuel. Customers will also have the choice of paying for a smaller or cheaper battery to save money.

But even without the battery included in the price, the car won’t be cheap by local standards. While Optimal’s CEO, Kobus Meiring, isn’t ready to set a firm price yet, he says vehicles in the same class go for about 220,000 South African Rand, about $22,000 dollars. Compare that to the Tata Nano, sold in the same market. The Nano’s lowest price is around $2,200 – and it is still far out of reach for the poorest South African families.

That leaves plenty of potential buyers, but focusing only on the local market would be a mistake, says Meiring. “You really have to be a global player,” he says. “There isn’t a manufacturer in the world that remains successful by staying only in its own country.”

So far, the company has completed much of the design, and recently showed off the vehicle at a popular Paris auto show. It was well received, according to Meiring. That’s not a hard claim to believe; up close, the prototype model comes across as sleek and modern, and the car is supposed to have a robust range of almost 250 miles, and top speed of about 80 miles per hour.

While Optimal is also working on a three seat design and a truck, the Joule is furthest along, and the company is bulking up rapidly to reach production. It currently has 79 employees, primarily engineers, and is planning to open a manufacturing facility near its headquarters in Cape Town, or in another South African city.

What the company still needs is money, although perhaps less than companies based in countries with more expensive labor. It also needs international partners to begin selling the car, once it’s in production. Meiring says he’d be interested in forming partnerships similar to the one Think, a Norwegian electric car maker, set up with two American venture capital firms.

With any luck, the pieces will all fall into place — it’s not hard to imagine a Joule parked in an American driveway.

South African Startup Has Joule of an EV

by on December 1, 2008 at 2:00 am

This morning’s blogger tour of South Africa included a stop off at the Capetown headquarters of startup electric car maker Optimal Energy.

The three-year old company is developing the Joule, a six-passenger all electric car that is scheduled to begin low-volume production at the end of 2010. CEO Kobus Meiring said the vehicle will have a maximum range of about 200 km, but the trunk has space for a second battery pack to double the range. The top speed for the car, aimed at city drivers, will be 130 km/hr.

The Joule is designed to compete with mainstream vehicles, not electric cars, Meiring said. He didn’t give specifics about the price, but said that without the batteries (which will be leased separately), the price will be in the range of 220 Rand (or around $25,000). The batteries will have a useful driving life of around 200,000 km.

The cost of the batteries is uncertain as the company has not selected a lithium ion battery partner yet, and Optimal Energy may lease batteries at multiple price points. (This is consistent with EV and plug-in hybrid makers in the U.S., who are similarly scrambling to identify batteries that meet their performance requirements). For EVs, batteries are a considerable amount of the cost, and the technology is still being tested and developed.

(For me it’s a little unsettling for car companies such as GM and Optimal Energy to be touting the wonders of a car when the major driving force–the batteries — are an unknown quantity. It’s like HP promising a wonderful new computer without knowing which CPU they’d use.)

Executive Marketing Manager Diana Blake said the company is considering batteries from 20 companies including those from China, the U.S. and Japan, and is also looking at ultracapacitors — the costly but durable solid state devices that can supplement batteries. Third-party battery companies, such as Better Place, which is setting up operations in Israel and the U.S., would be welcome to compete in battery leasing, according to Meiring.

Optimal Energy is targeting South Africa’s 700,000 units per year vehicle market. The Joule is designed to meet European safety regulations so that exporting to the north can also be an option.

The motivation to start the company included issues familiar to Americans — energy security (Meiring claimed 90 percent of all wars in the past 50 years were over energy), reducing carbon emissions, and increasing local jobs. However, the company has not yet studied the carbon impact in switching from South Africa’s diesel fuel derived from coal (nearly the entire market) to electricity from coal. Meiring said that electric batteries are five times more energy efficient than internal combustion engines, but transmission and energy losses in transferring energy to and from the batteries will lower the relative benefit. Since coal-to-liquids is about as carbon and energy intensive transportation around, the bar is pretty low for the vehicles to have a positive carbon impact.

While South Africa is currently under producing electricity to meet demand (and is therefore building more coal power plants), Meiring says the power grid has more than adequate power to accommodate overnight recharging even if the entire 7 million vehicle fleet switched to electrics.

Optimal Energy has several advantages in launching an electric fleet without impacting the grid over U.S. auto companies. First, the South African government’s Department of Science and Technology is a shareholder. Also, the state utility Eskom provides 90 percent of the electricity for the country, so introducing the vehicles requires dealing with a single entity, as compared to the U.S.’ mishmash of local private and public power providers.

Also, the country is on a single time zone, so night time recharging administration could be consistent through the nation. Meiring says introductory talks have begun with Eskom (which “has bigger fish to fry” because of insufficient power generating capacity), but they haven’t done demonstrations like are being done in the U.S. to test the impact of the vehicles on the grid. Meiring said the company plans on having the vehicles automatically recharge only at night, but an override would allow daytime charging.

Optimal Energy’s management include several engineers who developed helicopters for the government. Meiring said the company has outsourced much of the research and development to universities. He said that South Africa had been a leader in lithium battery technology until 1994 (when the government changed), and he believes that they could return to prominence in that area. Availability of lithium should not be an issue as nearby Zimbabwe has considerable untapped resources, according to Meiring.

The field for a full-time electric vehicle remains wide open as much-hyped Tesla Motors continues to have problems. While Optimal Energy did not mention selling the U.S. market, if the company can provide a hit in South Africa with locally-produced vehicles, the world may come calling.

(The blogger tour and meeting with Optimal Energy is being sponsored by the South African International Marketing Council).

South Africa Struggles With Carbon Footprint

by on November 20, 2008 at 8:58 am

South Africa’s growing economy may be slowing, but its appetite for energy is not. The nation has struggled to keep pace with its need for fuel and power and continues to expand its use of coal — and therefore its carbon emissions.

According to a new government report, South Africa is now ramping up efforts to at least account for and disclose its CO2 emissions without promising reductions. The country’s leading private coal producer also says emissions are on the rise, and is hoping for new technology to offset the continued expansion of coal used for electricity and transportation.

The government of South Africa just released its second Carbon Disclosure Report, which included more than double the amount of participating companies from the prior year. While more companies are beginning to track their carbon emissions and set goals, the data is far from complete, according to the report:

Relatively few companies (23 percent) have disclosed specific, company-wide GHG emissions reduction targets; and most of those companies that have emissions targets have focused on reducing their emissions-intensity, rather than striving for a reduction in absolute emissions.

Other South African companies that are expecting an associated cost for carbon emissions to be added in the coming years are starting to track their emissions internally.

South Africa has been slower to address climate change than other nations because of a lack of international obligations to do so, according to the report. While South Africa, signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, as a developing nation, it is not required to set or meet emissions reductions targets.

Energy company Sasol, which participated in the report, issued its own sustainability report this week that stated that greenhouse gas emissions grew from 69.8 to 72.7 million tons during the past year. Sasol is the nation’s leading producer of transportation fuel derived from coal (coal to liquids, or CTL). CTL fuel requires three times as much energy to produce than gasoline, losing 40 percent of the energy during the conversion process.

Sasol, one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, is pursuing a new coal to liquids plant, saying it would create jobs and help to ease the country’s energy crunch.

Sasol hopes that new technologies will someday help to green its business. The company does not have wind, wave or solar power generation facilities because according to CEO Pat Davies, they are not part of its core competencies.

Coal provides 90 percent of the electricity and one-third of the transportation fuel in South Africa, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

State-run utility Eskom hasn’t been able to keep pace with electricity and has resorted to rolling blackouts while it ramps up the construction of new coal plants. South Africa’s growing economy has been slowed by the international financial crisis, but the power demand is growing as the nation modernizes.

In addition to its 13 coal plants, Eskom operates two hydropower plants, one nuclear power plant, and a small pilot wind farm.

Image courtesy of Flickr, DanielDVM.

(Matter Network’s John Gartner will be touring South Africa and blogging about sustainability initiatives starting on November 29 as part of the Blogging South Africa program. Sign up for the RSS feed here.}

Blogging South African Innovation

by on July 17, 2008 at 3:40 pm

The Brand South Africa team is planning to bring a group of top US bloggers to SA in November.  The idea is to have them blog about what South Africans are doing that’s exciting, cutting-edge and not being done anywhere else. We’re looking for examples of innovation and creative problem-solving in areas such as energy, conservation, health, mining, transport, crime fighting, IT and mobile telephony. We won’t have unlimited time, so the less of it has to be spent in conference rooms watching Powerpoints the better. What we want to do is get the blogosphere buzzing at the great stuff that’s going on here but which isn’t necessarily making the headlines. Suggestions, please.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!