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).

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