With Better Place Gone, Danish EV Drivers Forge a New Path

By · December 20, 2013

Renault Zoe in Gilleleje

Henrik Gottlieb lives in a log house and commutes roughly 40 miles each day in a Renault Zoe pure electric vehicle.

The mountains and very cold weather in Scandinavia would seem to add up to a bad environment in which to own a plug-in electric vehicle. But Danish professor Henrik Gottlieb has still managed to take a cross-country trek in a battery-electric vehicle in the frigid October weather. He also commutes to work each day in one.

Gottlieb, who is an associate professor of English and Translation Studies at the University of Copenhagen, lives in a log house 65 kilometers (about 40 miles) from the university. He commutes to work in his Renault Zoe pure electric vehicle.

As his university does not provide charging—even for electric bikes—Gottlieb said he charges his BEV at home, using electricity provided by wind. He can also use one of the five public charge points in Copenhagen that are compatible with his Zoe’s plug. He has a smart phone app that tells him which charging points are free.

The Zoe is not Gottlieb’s first experience with a battery-electric vehicle. In 2012, he and his wife were selected by Clever, a company that builds charging infrastructure in Denmark, to use a tiny Citroen Zero for three months free of charge.

Despite the lack of workplace charging for Gottlieb, Denmark does have a pretty good charging infrastructure. So good, in fact, that Gottlieb was able to take a 500 km (311 miles) road trip in the Zero in October of 2012. He did have to charge a lot however—even with the heating turned off, not a great option in zero degrees Celsius conditions. The tiny BEV got only about 80 km per charge driving at 80 k/hr (50 mph), said Gottlieb.

Life After Better Place

Gottlieb bought his Zoe in summer of 2013, when Danish drivers were still smarting from the Better Place bankruptcy. Denmark was, along with Israel, one of the two countries Better Place chose as a test ground for its battery-swapping business model.

The Better Place demise discouraged Danes from buying EVs, said Gottlieb. “Even eco-friendly colleagues, neighbors, friends, and relatives wanted to know how we had the courage” to buy the Zoe, he said.
Sales of plug-in electric vehicles in Denmark did fall this year compared to last year, from 500 in 2012 to an expected 440 in 2013, John Gartner, research director for smart transportation at Navigant Research told PluginCars.

But the Better Place failure was just a temporary setback to PEV sales, said Gartner. “The number of people who knew about it was relatively small,” he said. Navigant expects PEV sales in Denmark to show a compounded annual growth rate of 32 percent from 2013 to 2022, when sales will reach 5,467 units.

German power company E.On bought the Danish assets of Better Place and has reopened the charging points, though it won’t be operating the battery swapping stations. “Annoyingly,” said Gottlieb, “the Renault Zoe is still not supported by these chargers, but E.ON expects to offer chargers for all EVs by spring of 2014”.

Gottlieb hopefully won’t have to worry about finding charge points in a few years. The Danish government has put out a tender for construction of a nationwide network of charging stations along motorways, according to a September posting on the website of the Denmark Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This will result in a significant expansion in the number of charging locations and a great supplement to the infrastructure installed by Better Place mainly in urban areas,” said the website.

Norway Envy

Meanwhile, in nearby Norway plug-in electric vehicle ownership is already surging on the back of extremely favorable government policies.

“I wish we all could boast of Norwegian conditions elsewhere in Europe,” Gottlieb said a bit wistfully. Norwegians “happily subscribe to EVs for financial rather than environmentally-friendly reasons,” he said.

Battery-electric vehicle owners in Norway enjoy access to bus lanes, free city parking, and no purchase tax or value-added tax on the vehicle. In a country where gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles are taxed at more than 100 percent, that is a considerable financial incentive.

Sales forecasts from Navigant reflect the measure’s effectiveness. Sales of battery-electric vehicles are expected to hit 6,743 units in 2022, up from 1,420 units in 2013. “Because many car buyers still look at upfront purchase price rather than long-term operating costs, the best thing to do is lower the upfront cost,” said Gartner. “A tax abatement is the best way.”

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