Renault ZOE

Is Renault backing away from commitments to Better Place, causing a crisis for Better Place

A series of news pieces the last few days has me wondering whether the obvious crisis underway at Better Place is due to signs that Renault is backing away from commitments to support Better Place.  Better Place is not an automaker, but the operator of an electric car recharging and battery swapping infrastructure system.  Renault is the company’s primary (?sole?) automaker partner, providing the Renault Fluence ZE with Better Place battery swapping technology, selling this car in Israel and Denmark where Renault is operating battery swapping stations.This means that Better Place is wholly dependent on Renault for supplying electric cars to utilize Better Place’s swapping stations.  However Renault is not dependent on Better Place for anything.The sequence of events are:-

Shai Agassi resigns from Better Place board following resignation from CEO post and before that Shai Agassi steps down as CEO of Better Place as company enters new phase:  Shai Agassi, the founder of Better Place, suddenly resigns and while it’s initially said he’ll remain as a Board member, within a week he “resigns” from that post as well.
Better Place, Tesla and Zero Motorcycles receive California Energy Commission grants:  A grant is given from the California Energy Commission to support an electric taxi demonstration project for the SF Bay Area.  The taxi system will be in operation by 2013.  By itself this is cool, but what was the head turner was a detail I found while researching this article.  Coda and Better Place working on electric taxi system for SF Bay Area: For the taxi demonstration project, Coda Automotive is supplying the initial 6 cars rather than Renault.  Of course Renault does not supply cars in the U.S. and Coda does, so perhaps it’s just a one-off deal?
Renault ZOE crowned Best Green Car of the 2012 Paris Motor Show:  It’s cool for Renault their car was awarded an honor.  The underplayed change with the ZOE is that while originally it was to use the Better Place quick battery swap system, it now does not do so.  Instead the car has an on-board 43 kilowatt 3 phase AC fast charger that’s better than all other fast charging systems currently available.

My line of thinking after covering this sequence of events is that, perhaps Renault realizes it does not need quick battery swapping capability.  That instead it can rely on the inexpensive fast charger system the company developed.
The goal, whether it is DC fast charge, AC fast charge, or quick battery swap, is to implement a rapid recharge of the vehicle to give drivers capabilities as close to the American Road Trip as possible.
The stereotypical Road Trip scenario is to drive 300 miles, stop at a gas station, take a pee break, grab a sandwich, refill the gas tank, pick up some snacks, and head back on the road.  That should take 30 minutes for the rest and refueling break.  The problem is that no electric car can come close to implementing this, except for the Tesla Model S with the SuperCharger.  The Model S almost directly supports that scenario, but requires a $100,000 car to do so.
Better Place is saying that battery packs are expensive, and that electric cars are slow to recharge.  Their solution is quick battery exchange and leased battery packs (at a monthly fee).
But what if you can design an electric car that supports fast recharge?  Additionally, if manufacturer offers a lease deal for the battery pack, the manufacturer can capture the cost benefit of doing so.  An electric car with robust fast charging and a leased battery pack implements everything Better Place offers, but without requiring a deal with Better Place.
Renault ZOE
And this is exactly what the Renault ZOE is.  An inexpensive electric car, a leased battery pack, and a robust fast charger.  The charging solution isn’t quite as fast as the Tesla Model S, but the ZOE costs 1/4th the price.
The ZOE has a price of €20,700 ($26,820) and in France there are significant discounts, making the French price €13,700 ($17,751).  To get to that price the battery pack is leased under several lease terms, with one example given as €79/month ($102/month) (for a contract covering 12,500km/year, 7,767 miles/year, over a period of 36 months).

The Caméléon charging system (see Renault’s 43 kilowatt fast charge system for ZOE and other electric cars for details) supports a full range of charging rates from 3 kilowatt up to 400 volt 32 amp three phase AC at a 43 kilowatt charge rate.  At the upper charge rate the ZOE can be recharged in 30 minutes.  Driving range is 90 miles city driving, perhaps 60-70 highway.

The fast charge system is robust enough that a pair of ZOE’s were run through an endurance race in June, and one of the two cars covered 1000 miles in 24 hours.  This was accomplished by use of the fast charger, and 18 quick charges within 24 hours.

So far fast charging has required a huge off-board charging station that rectifies AC to DC inside a box the size of a large refrigerator.  This is required to support DC fast charging rates of between 50-100 kilowatts.  The Caméléon charging unit is completely on-board the ZOE, and supports a 43 kilowatt three phase AC input.

In other words, the ZOE is a diminutive little game changer in terms of what we expect is required to support fast charging on electric cars.

In short I’m guessing – and this is a wild ass guess that has no proof behind it, just conjecture based on the above factoids – that Renault does not need Better Place any longer.  That Renault has realized it does not need Better Place.  That the ZOE is being launched without discussing quick battery exchange stations (Better Place) is probably what caused the Better Place board to kick out Shai Agassi.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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