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Renault Australia plugs in

Grid-connected: Production Fluence ZE gets a charging inlet on both sides.

Revolutionary Renault Fluence ZE – and its swappable battery – on sale here in 2012

20 Jun 2011

RENAULT is the latest car-maker to commit to introducing an electric vehicle (EV) Down Under, the French brand today announcing its revolutionary Fluence ZE sedan will hit local roads within 12 months, before becoming available to Australians by the end of next year.

Unlike the first pure-electric mass-production vehicle to be sold in Australia – Mitsubishi’s pioneering i-MiEV city-car, which hits local showrooms in August – the Fluence ZE is powered by a battery pack that can be exchanged in about the same time it takes to refuel a regular car.

As such, EV infrastructure company Better Place, which will create a nationwide network of charge points and battery switch stations starting in Canberra this year, describes the Fluence ZE as Australia’s first “unlimited range” EV, because it eliminates the biggest problem with battery-electric vehicles – limited driving range.

Better Place, which will jointly promote the five-seat Fluence ZE sedan in the lead-up to its local launch during the fourth quarter of 2012 in what amounts to an extension of the global partnership between it and Renault, said it will establish the world’s largest EV charging network in Australia by the end of 2013.

Cost is the other significant problem for EVs, but Renault says the all-electric version of its new mid-size sedan, which went on sale here with a petrol engine last October, will come with a “similar” pricetag to a comparably sized and specified vehicle.

Given the petrol-powered Fluence is priced between $23,000 and $30,000, that suggests the ZE will cost significantly less than the i-MiEV, pricing for which was announced last week at $48,800.

However, the Fluence ZE’s purchase price won’t include the cost of the battery, which will be leased to customers by Better Place.

In the same way that customers pay electricity providers for the use of their equipment plus the power they use, Better Place will charge customers a subscription fee that includes the lease of the battery and the supply of power from its grid.

Better Place’s “tailored membership packages” – for which no prices have yet been revealed - will include unlimited access to batteries, a network of public charge spots and battery switch stations, and personal charging outlets at customers’ homes or workplaces.

The company says its EV model, which also includes personalised energy management and navigation services via in-car and network software plus 24-hour customer service and support, is fundamental to making the Fluence ZE an affordable mass-market EV because it eliminates the need to purchase the most expensive component of most EVs - the battery.

Negating the argument that EVs simply shift the CO2 burden from the exhaust outlets of conventional vehicles to the smoke stacks of coal-fired power stations, Better Place has committed to purchasing only 100 per cent renewable energy for its Australian network.

However, even when using non-renewable ‘grid-average’ power, says Better Place, an EV emits 27 per cent less CO2 than an equivalent petrol vehicle over its entire lifecycle, including production of the vehicle and its fuel.

Australia will become home to Better Place’s third national charging network after Israel and Denmark when the company begins rolling out its infrastructure in Canberra from later this year, following the June 1 announcement of a renewable energy deal with local utility ActewAGL.

In the largest renewable energy contract of its kind in Australia, the $60 million 10-year deal will see Better Place’s Canberra power grid supplied with electricity generated only by wind, hydro and/or solar technologies.

As part of its landmark deal with Renault Australia, Better Place will test its fledgling charging network in the nation’s capital with a fleet of Fluence ZEs from the second quarter of next year, in the same way the i-MiEV has been leased to 40 “foundation” fleet companies since last year.

While Tesla has so far sold only a handful of its all-electric $220k-plus Roadster – Australia’s first factory EV - supply constraints will see Mitsubishi sell just 60 i-MiEVs in its first year of public sales.

The Fluence – which employs the same lithium-ion battery technology as the i-MiEV but boasts a longer 185km driving range, according to the NEDC test cycle – should be preceded by the release of two other mainstream EVs in Australia next year.

Renault’s sister company Nissan says it is on target to introduce its all-electric Leaf hatchback in April next year, while Holden remains committed to release GM’s plug-in hybrid Volt liftback in Australia in the second half of 2012.

Both vehicles are powered solely by a Li-Ion battery - as is Toyota’s Prius Plug-In hybrid, which goes on sale in Japan, Europe and the US next year but remains under study for Australia – but none are compatible with Better Place’s robotised battery swap system.

Better Place has installed more than 30 charge points for i-MiEV customers and says it will service any vehicle with a plug, but highlights the fact the Fluence ZE is the first EV supported by a dedicated charging network and the first EV for which customers will not pay up front for the battery, which typically costs between $10,000 and $15,000.

It also questions the validity of plug-in hybrids like the Volt, which has a reduced zero-emissions driving range of up to 80km and could cost up to $60,000 here, but employs a range-extending engine to avoid ‘range anxiety’, making it and other plug-in hybrids well suited to the vast distances between Australian metro centres.

“Once you’ve got a charging network why would you cart a second power source around?” said Better Place Australia CEO Evan Thornley, who describes hybrids and plug-in hybrids as interim technologies like a fax machine.

Mr Thornley said there would be no limit to the popularity of the battery-swappable Fluence ZE once charging networks were established in major Australian capitals and battery swap stations were – “over time” - located in strategic positions between them.

He said plug-in vehicles will arrive in Australia earlier than Better Place had expected and that the company had already secured charge point and battery station sites around Australia in anticipation of their arrival.

Better Place predicts the “fundamental economics” of EVs will ensure their take-up is faster than even Renault’s optimistic prediction, which forecast that EVs will account for 10 per cent of all vehicles by 2020.

Toyota’s decade-old Prius has been joined by a number of other petrol-electric hybrid models from Lexus and Honda, but hybrids – which have long been viewed as a stepping stone to full-EVs like those being developed by almost all manufacturers including, by 2013, BMW - still account for less than one per cent of Australia’s new vehicle sales.

35 center imageHowever, Better Place says the advent of battery financing and a battery charging/swapping network is a “game-changer” that “helps put Australia at the front of the curve”, citing Berkley University estimates that the vast majority of cars in the US will be EVs by 2030.

“Petrol prices are higher here, so we expect the take-up to be even greater,” said Mr Thornley. “By 2013 more than half of Australians will be able to drive where ever they want (in an EV).”

Better Place says that because the cost of petrol dwarfs the vehicle’s purchase price over time the Fluence ZE would have a lower cost of ownership than its petrol-powered sibling over a typical three-year lease period.

While power prices are due to rise in NSW by 18 per cent on July 1, Better Place says that at current levels even renewable electricity costs just three cents per kilowatt hour – compared to 10-15 cents for petrol.

Mr Thornley said it had locked in its renewable power price in Canberra for the next decade and that Better Place’s bulk power deal with ActewAGL resulted in large savings, adding that of the $35 billion of petrol used in Australia every year - the vast majority in urban areas – the majority was will be at risk in future.

The vast majority of EV power will come from home-based charge points, he said, and that charge points would outnumber both battery swap stations and – eventually – traditional service stations. Australia’s Better Place charging network will eclipse Israel and Denmark’s, and will initially outpace that of China’s and North America’s, which will be modelled on the Australian rollout.

Mr Thornley countered claims there was not enough lithium to produce the number of batteries required for mass-market EV production by saying the world’s largest reserves were located in Western Australia, and said he was confident Australia’s renewable energy supply would be sufficient to meet local EV power demands.

Privately owned and based in California, Better Place has 30 staff in Australia and has raised almost $US700 million in financing globally to date, while the Renault-Nissan Alliance has invested more than four billion Euro in its EV strategy.

According the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 95 per cent of Australian car trips are less than 120km and many cars many cars are parked for between 20 and 22 hours per day. Therefore, says Renault, most drivers will constantly ‘top up’ their range while parked at home or work, via charge points Better Place will install.

A Better Place charge point delivers around 25km of range per hour, with about 100km delivered in four hours. Renault says the Fluence ZE battery pack is maintenance-free and delivers between 80 and 100 per cent of its original capacity for eight years.

It points out that Li-Ion batteries do not suffer ‘memory’ effect following incomplete charge cycles and that electric motors offer an energy efficiency of 90 per cent – compared to just 25 per cent for most internal combustion engines, which had about 400 moving parts versus just one for an electric motor.

“Electric vehicles represent the clean-break solution that can put zero-emissions mobility within everybody’s reach,” said Renault Australia managing director Justin Hocevar.

“The Fluence ZE sedan is the first C-segment electric vehicle and is proof that EVs can be practical, feasible and as we will detail closer to launch, eminently affordable. Although we are yet to release pricing, our aim is to make EVs attainable for everyone.

“Today is just the start of a journey into the future of the automobile and personal mobility. We hope Renault will be able to give a large number of Australians their first and very favourable EV driving experience.”

Today’s announcement is somewhat of a backflip for Renault Australia, which made it clear to GoAuto in April that EVs remained off the agenda until a solid business could be proved.

At the time, Mr Hocevar, said the Renault brand would be re-established with conventionally powered vehicles in Australia, where a lack of EV infrastructure and government incentives remained a barrier to the uptake of widespread EV take-up.

Renault’s Australian chief said the decision to import the Fluence ZE was made only recently after he and selected Australian dealers drove the vehicle in Copenhagen in recent weeks.

As we’ve reported, the Fluence ZE is the first of four all-electric vehicles to come from Renault and was scheduled to enter left-hand drive production in the first half of this year in Turkey, where Australia’s new Megane hatch is produced.

Renault says Australia’s Fluence ZE will also be made there, despite its Asian partner Samsung confirming at April’s Seoul motor show that it would also produce the Megane-based electric sedan in Korea, where Australia’s regular Fluence, Latitude and Koleos are produced.

Renault will not disclose its sales projections until closer to the Fluence ZE’s launch, but admits its volume targets are “well beyond” Mitsubishi’s for the i-MiEV. It said not every Australian Renault retailer would sell the Fluence ZE, but all would have the ability to service it.

Apart from charging inlets on both front quarter panels, a number of subtle styling changes and ZE badging, the electric Fluence is also 130mm longer than its petrol equivalent at 4748mm long, to accommodate the air-cooled 22kWh Li-Ion battery pack behind its rear seats, adding 250kg and leaving boot space of 300 litres.

However, instead of its conventional cousin’s 103kW/195Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine – which consumes 7.8 litres of petrol every 100km and emits 184 grams of CO2 per kilometre - the Fluence ZE bonnet conceals a 70kW/226Nm syncronious electric motor that weighs 160kg and emits no CO2.

Unladen weight increases to 1543kg and top speed is limited to 135km/h, but Renault does not provide acceleration figures.

The tacho is replaced by a bespoke instrument showing battery charge and remaining range, while its gearshifter simply features forward, reverse, neutral and parking positions.

Standard features will include Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate-control, automatic headlights and wipers, and a ‘smart’ navigation system co-developed by Renault and Better Place, dubbed OSCAR, which will have the ability to provide real-time traffic, parking, weather and charge/battery swap locations via the internet.

The Fluence ZE is the first of two Renault EVs developed from conventional vehicles. The second is the Kangoo ZE, which doesn’t feature a switchable battery but is under consideration for Australia.

European pricing for the Kangoo - which is powered by a 44kW/226Nm motor, has a 650kg payload and offers a 160km battery range – is the equivalent of $A26,000 to $A29,000, plus a $A90 per month battery lease fee over four years/58,000km.

The first of two dedicated new Renault EVs is the futuristic Twizy two-seater bubble-car, European pricing for which was announced last month before deliveries begin late this year. Australia is not among the 38 countries for which the Twizy has been earmarked globally.

Second will be the four-door, five-seat Zoe hatch, which is similar in size to the Clio and has a 160km battery range. Its electric motor produces 60kW/222Nm and Renault expects the Zoe to be priced comparably to an equivalent diesel hatch after European subsidies are taken into account.

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