SmartED being charged in the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.
SmartED being charged in the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

Charge Your Electric Car Like Wikipedia?

Germany's Drehstromnetz charging network based on non-profit model.

By Martin Schwoerer

All over the world, managers of electric utilities are contemplating how to make electric-car charging facilities ubiquitous and affordable. You can almost hear the heads being scratched over topics like: should each user have his own smart card for paying? How about plug compatibility -- which standard to use? How to make a charger safe from vandals?

But above all, the question is: where’s the business model? How can you make money with charging stations when they require a considerable capital outlay, it takes hours to charge a car (in contrast to the quick in-out of a gasoline filling station), and most people will charge at home anyway?

Well, how about a non-profit system? Why not just forget the business model? And before you laugh and say something about socialist dreamers, remember: society has plenty of non-profit institutions that work quite well. Open-source software, Wikimedia, Wikileaks, the Internet DNS: they are all non-profit, rely on the work of enthusiastic part-timers, and are engines for social progress. (OK -- in the case of Wikileaks not everybody will agree, but you get the point).

An engine for progress is what you might call Drehstromnetz.de, the German collaborative system of charging stations. (“Drehstrom” is three-phase alternating current, and “Netz” means network). Founded in 2006 by Holger Keser, a teacher, it is a study in growth: on average, Drehstromnetz grows by one loading station per week, and is now approaching the 200-unit mark.

Click here (http://drehstromnetz.de/wachstum.html) to see how the network has grown from 2006 to date. (The lightest shade of green indicates a range of 90 kilometers, in contrast to the radii of 50 and 70 KM that the darker shades signify).

So: if your electric car has a range of at least 90 KM (around 56 miles, a quite small radius for a modern electric car), if you are in a “green” area and a member of Drehstromnetz, you’ll never need to feel range anxiety.

But what does it take to be a member? It’s quite simple. You need to have a charging station and you need to ensure public access to your charging station at any time of the day. (The minimum requirement is three-phase with at least 16A, but 32A is the normal case. Drehstromnetz supplies the hardware -- the “access box” -- at cost if you need it, and there is a user forum for support too). Register at the website, and start sailing. On average, one person per week does.

What about payment? Drehstromnetz is an honor-based system. You send an email or text message to indicate you’re coming, you charge up your car on high-voltage juice, and then you leave a few Euros in an envelope in your charging host’s letter box. (Given the system is made by, and made for enthusiasts, by all likelihood you’ll be asked in for a cup of coffee while your car is being charged. Or if not, wait and read the paper.)

But what if you are an urban apartment-dweller who cannot provide access for electric cars? Drehstromnetz has a simple solution. You become a “supporting member”, and pay a contribution of 250 Euros, which is collected by somebody who indicated they’d set up an access point if given a financial incentive. Supporting members then enjoy all the benefits of normal members.

And they’ll be able to travel, too. Similar networks are being set up in Norway, France, Denmark and the Netherlands. Mr. Keser, an avid tourist, has been happy to drive his electric car in several of these countries.

Will 2011 -- the year of the electric car -- bei the year in which Drehstromnetz expands exponentially? After all, thousands of Leafs, iMiEVs and Th!nks will be newly cruising German roads. I asked Mr. Keser, who sounded quite guarded. Apparently, he is worried about how growth might affect an honor-based system, even if the only thing that might go wrong is an occasional unpaid charge-up. Mr Keser compares the system he founded to a family-organized hobby that is run for fun. His compatriots at Drehstromnetz may, in contrast, favor stronger growth, but Keser is a gradualist -- a schism typical for a non-profit situation. But no matter what, Drehstromnetz looks like a system with a strong future, that has already markedly improved the lot of EV drivers in Germany.

Drehstromnetz Collaborate Electric Car Charging Network

Germany's Drehstromnetz collaborate electric car charging network.

Times Article Viewed: 11039
Published: 06-Jan-2011


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