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Science

Rise of electric cars prompt 'smart' electrical grids in Portugal

Portugal’s long-term target of 750,000 electric cars fits with its smart energy plans. Already, the country has 40 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources.

A man driving a Nissan Volt

The Nissan Leaf will launch in Portugal in January

The launch in Portugal in January of Nissan's Leaf marks the start of the rollout in Europe of what the company says is the first 100 percent electric car aimed at a mass market.

Nissan targeted Portugal - where it will also soon be assembling batteries for the Leaf - after that country's government agreed to setting up a national network of charging points.

In fact, the network is to be compatible with any make of electric car, and is part of still more ambitious long-term plans for a genuinely "smart grid" that could help Portugal make fuller use of its fast-expanding renewable energy capacity.

Portuguese flag

The Portuguese government wants to expand its network of charging stations

In early December, amid ultra-modern architecture at the former site of the Expo 98 World Fair in Lisbon, members of the Portuguese public got the chance to test drive the Leaf.

Portuguese consumers are curious about electric cars

Comments ranged from the polite to the enthusiastic, with the lack of engine noise the most obvious characteristic of what at first glance looks like a regular five-seater family run-around. But the very lack of engine noise creates some new "problems."

"For instance, the headlamps have a specific design to avoid air going to the mirrors," said António Joaquim, the communications director of Nissan Iberia Portugal.

"The exterior mirrors on a normal car produce a lot of noise with the wind. But on this car, which doesn't make any noise from the engine, all the very small noises that on other cars are not perceptible are - let's say, uncomfortable."

The more obvious matter of charging the car seems straightforward: a small panel on the bonnet opens to reveal something rather similar to an ordinary electric plug.

"If you want to charge when you are parking inside a garage in your own house or in a shopping centre, it's better to have it on the bonnet," Joaquim added. "It's a completely different usage from a combustion engine. You just charge the car during your daily life."

Charging stations are scarce for now, but are expected to increase

There are two charging options: a partial quick charge, for example when you are on the motorway and do not want to stop for long, or a cheaper slow charge of up to eight hours.

Prospective buyers in Lisbon seemed to take the limitations of electric cars on board.

"It's a nice car, and a good prospect for someone like me who has an urban life, and drives about 30 or 40 kilometres to work and back," said one man, who declined to give his name.

The innovative design of the Leaf's lithium batteries means that you can drive the car for longer.

A Toyota Prius

AutoMotor's editor thinks that the European Car of the Year jury missed out on the Prius

But even a fully-charged Leaf has a more limited range than a car with a full fuel tank. So the fact that it recently was named European Car of the Year - the first completely electric vehicle to do so - raised some eyebrows.

António Pereira, editor of Portuguese car magazine AutoMotor, told Deutsche Welle he suspected the competition's jury may have been anxious not to miss a trick, having previously failed to garland the first version of the Toyota Prius, which later became a hit.

The Nissan Leaf is, he said, an interesting experiment, and Portugal a suitably small testing ground, but with some problems.

"Recharging stations are still few [in number] and mainly in the big cities," he said.

"And in Portugal we mainly live in apartments. So either you have a parking space in your building or you have to recharge at night in the public recharging station. That's complicated because there won't be one for each."

Portugal pushing for dynmaic energy flow in its 'smart grid'

Still, the spread of on-street charging points in Portugal is the reason the Leaf is getting its European launch in the country.

The government-led Mobi.E consortium is installing 1,300 chargers around the country, compatible with all makes of car. In addition, the state is offering a 5,000 euro ($6,500) subsidy for buyers of electric cars - bringing the Leaf's price down to 30,000 euro - and a road-tax exemption.

Portugal's ambitious declared long-term target of 750,000 electric vehicles on its roads also fits with plans to expand its renewable energy output, going some way to addressing sceptics' argument that electric cars' environmental impact depends on where their power comes from.

map and euros

The Portuguese government is subsidizing the purchase price of electric cars

"We have defined as a target to be the first country to have a nationwide and comprehensive infrastructure for vehicles and to work to give the necessary framework and incentives so that we can massively introduce the electric vehicle," Luís Reis of Mobi.E explained at a trade fair earlier this year.

"This is important not only in terms of the sustainability of mobility but also in terms of the strategy that we have for energy."

Portuguese society has high reliance on renewable sources

Portugal - for decades heavily reliant on imported oil for its energy needs - now generates over 40 percent of electricity from renewables, and rising. And officials overseeing the development of the electric grid envision a future in which drivers will actually be able to profit from helping ensure that same energy is used efficiently, when electric cars have full internet capability.

"You drive it home in the evening, plug [it in to] both internet and power, and the car starts receiving signals of electricity spot prices," António Vidigal, a director of privatised utility EDP, one of the Mobi.E partners, told a conference on climate change earlier this year.

Portugal's solar panels

Portugal now generates over 40 percent of electricity from renewables

"At night the price is low; the car will charge overnight," Vidigal went on. "Next day you come to office, plug again into both plugs. Peak time energy will be expensive and the car may sell energy back to the network."

As in many countries, hydro-electric dams in Portugal already store excess energy from wind farms; this is used to pump water uphill, to be used to generate power when demand is high. Now the groundwork is being laid for a smart grid that could see cars playing a similar role.

As the first step in what is to be a nationwide programme, EDP in 2010 made Évora in the Alentejo, a city with a population of some 50,000, the first "InovCity" in the future national "InovGrid."

"Consumers have access almost to real-time information as to their energy consumption, so they'll be able to manage that better," explained Miguel Andrade, a director of EDP Distribuição, the group's distribution unit.

"From the company's side obviously we hope to have operational efficiencies from this. We hope to integrate more renewables, more micro-generation and eventually in the medium to long-term also the electric vehicle into the grid.

"I think we're genuinely witnessing a revolution in the way we manage distribution networks."

Nissan investing in Portugal

But if it's early days for integrating cars into this vision, what of today's models? The Leaf on show in Lisbon cannot, slot into a smart grid. But, he said, the model is easily adapted.

"We are implementing the electric vehicles now, so we have to be cost efficient otherwise people would not buy them," said António Joaquim, Nissan Portugal communications director. "That is why the cars don't have this and the grid doesn't have this capabilities.

"But from the utility's point of view the technology is already known, from the car industry the technology is already known, so I don't think that is a very difficult thing to implement later on. It's a question of software."

Portuguese electrical charging station

Portugal has already begun rolling out electrical charging stations

The Leaf itself can already communicate with the charging point: identifying itself and its charging specifications and needs, as well as its owner - who will after all be paying for the power as part of the electricity bill sent to his home.

Some environmentalists see models such as the Leaf as primarily a public relations exercise for manufacturers that still devote most of their investment to conventional models. Nissan's own projections for electric cars do not go beyond 10 percent of total sales.

But given that the company is building factories in Japan, the US and the UK dedicated to making the Leaf - and which it would be difficult and expensive to convert to make other cars - the company is perhaps not the prime target for such accusations.

"Everybody in the automotive business is trying to do their own 'greenwash', promising 'green' products - and most are less polluting than before, but not that green," said António Pereira, editor of AutoMotor.

"I think Nissan is probably taking a lot of risks with the electric car but it's not doing greenwash - not at all."

Author: Alison Roberts, Lisbon
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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