Renault plans to harness geothermal energy and help heat plant

A Renault logo photographed in Bavaria, Germany. The French automotive giant says it’s targeting carbon neutrality in Europe by 2040 and globally by 2050.

Igor Golovniov/Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

The Renault Group is working with French utility Engie on the development of a geothermal energy project at the automaker’s Douai facility, with the collaboration set to last 15 years.

In a statement, Renault said Thursday a subsidiary of Engie would start drilling work at Douai — which was established in 1970 and focuses on bodywork assembly — in late 2023.

The plan centers around taking hot water from a depth of 4,000 meters, or more than 13,100 feet.

According to Renault, this water will be used to help meet the Douai site’s “industrial and heating process needs from 2025.” The temperature of the water will be between 130 and 140 degrees Celsius.

“Once implemented, this geothermal technology would provide a power of nearly 40 MW continuously,” the company said.

“In summer, when the need for heat is lower, geothermal energy could be used to produce carbon-free electricity,” it added.

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The Renault Group’s CEO, Luca de Meo, described the program planned for Douai as “one of the most ambitious decarbonisation projects on a European industrial site.”

According to the International Energy Agency, geothermal energy refers to “energy available as heat contained in or discharged from the earth’s crust” which can be utilized to produce electricity and provide direct heat.

Elsewhere, the U.S. Department of Energy says geothermal energy “supplies renewable power around the clock and emits little or no greenhouse gases.”

News about Renault’s geothermal project with Engie was accompanied by details of other projects centered around decarbonizing operations at a number of the automotive giant’s industrial facilities.

Looking at the bigger picture, Renault says it’s targeting carbon neutrality in Europe by the year 2040 and globally by 2050.

Despite these aims, a top executive at the firm recently told CNBC that the firm saw the internal combustion engine as continuing to play a crucial role in its business over the coming years.

Earlier this month, it was announced the Renault Group and Chinese firm Geely had signed a non-binding framework agreement to establish a company focused on the development, production and supply of “hybrid powertrains and highly efficient ICE [internal combustion engine] powertrains.”

Speaking to CNBC’s Charlotte Reed, Renault Chief Financial Officer Thierry Pieton sought to explain some of the reasoning behind the planned partnership with Geely.

“In our view, and according to all the studies that we’ve got, there is no scenario where ICE and hybrid engines represent less than 40% of the market with a horizon of 2040,” he said. “So it’s actually … a market that’s going to continue to grow.”

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Renault’s continued focus on the internal combustion engine comes at a time when some big economies are looking to move away from vehicles that use fossil fuels.

The U.K., for example, wants to stop the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars and vans by 2030. It will require, from 2035, all new cars and vans to have zero tailpipe emissions.

The European Union, which the U.K. left on Jan. 31, 2020, is pursuing similar targets. Over in the United States, California is banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035.

French project aims to supply Europe with lithium

A Lithium-ion battery photographed at a Volkswagen facility in Germany. The EU is looking to increase the number of electric vehicles on its roads in the coming years.

Ronny Hartmann | AFP | Getty Images

Paris-headquartered minerals giant Imerys plans to develop a lithium extraction project that it’s hoped will help meet demand and secure supply for Europe’s emerging electric vehicle market.

In a statement Monday, Imerys said its Emili Project would be located at a site in the center of France, with the company targeting 34,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide production each year from 2028.

According to the business, this level of production would be enough to “equip approximately 700,000 electrical vehicles per year.”

Alongside its use in cell phones, computers, tablets and a host of other gadgets synonymous with modern life, lithium — which some have dubbed “white gold” — is crucial to the batteries that power electric vehicles.

The project being planned by Imerys is taking shape at a time when major economies like the EU are looking to ramp up the number of electric vehicles on their roads.

The EU plans to stop the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars and vans from 2035. The U.K., which left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020, is pursuing similar targets.

With demand for lithium rising, the European Union — of which France is a member — is attempting to shore up its own supplies and reduce dependency on other parts of the world.   

In a translation of her State of the Union speech last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas.”

As well as addressing security of supply, von der Leyen, who switched between several languages during her speech, also stressed the importance of processing.

“Today, China controls the global processing industry,” she said. “Almost 90% … of rare earth[s] and 60% of lithium are processed in China.”

“So we will identify strategic projects all along the supply chain, from extracting to refining, from processing to recycling,” she added. “And we will build up strategic reserves where supply is at risk.”

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Back in France, Imerys said it was finalizing what it described as a “technical scoping study” in order to “explore various operational options and refine geological and industrial aspects relating to the lithium extraction and processing method.”

The site selected for the project has, since the end of the 19th century, been used to produce a type of clay called kaolin for use in the ceramics industry.

The construction capital expenditure of the proposed lithium project is estimated to be around 1 billion euros (roughly $980 million), Imerys added.

“Upon successful completion, the project would contribute to the French and European Union’s energy transition ambitions,” the company said. “It would also increase Europe’s industrial sovereignty at a time when car and battery manufacturers are heavily dependent on imported lithium, which is a key element in the energy transition.”

In recent years, a range of factors has created pressure points when it comes to the supply of the materials crucial for EVs, an issue the International Energy Agency highlighted earlier this year in its Global EV Outlook.

“The rapid increase in EV sales during the pandemic has tested the resilience of battery supply chains, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has further exacerbated the challenge,” the IEA’s report noted, adding that prices of materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel have soared.

“In May 2022, lithium prices were over seven times higher than at the start of 2021,” it added. “Unprecedented battery demand and a lack of structural investment in new supply capacity are key factors.”

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In a recent interview with CNBC, the CEO of Mercedes-Benz sketched out the current state of play, as he saw it when it came to the raw materials required for EVs and their batteries.

“Raw material prices have been quite volatile in the last 12 to 18 months — some have spiked and actually some have come back down again,” Ola Kallenius said.

“But it is true as we become electric, all-electric and more and more automakers go into the electric space, there is a need to increase mining capacities and refining capacities for lithium, nickel, and some of those raw materials that are needed to produce electric cars.”

“We have everything that we need now, but we need to look into the mid to long-term and work with the mining industry here to increase capacities.”

Puerto Rico’s power grid is still costly and unreliable after Hurricane Maria

Police offers stand guard near demonstrators blocking the entrance to a Luma Energy facility at the Puerto Rico Electric Authority (Prepa) Palo Seco Power Plant in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, on Friday June 4, 2021.

Xavier Garcia | Bloomberg | Getty Images

When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico in September, Felipe Pérez was ready.

Pérez, the owner of local sandwich shop chain El Meson, equipped his stand-alone locations with power generators and water tanks in the event of a prolonged outage like the one after Hurricane Maria, the devastating storm that ravaged the island in 2017.

His business was one of the lucky ones. Many businesses were forced to shut down for weeks after Hurricane Fiona hit. And even for some businesses that quickly got electricity back, “the cost of operations was so high that they would rather close,” Pérez said.

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The state of Puerto Rico’s power grid has been a sore spot for many island businesses and residents, leading to backlash against Luma Energy — the company brought in to operate and improve the grid after Hurricane Maria.

The Luma takeover

Luma Energy officially took over control of the island’s power grid in June 2021 for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA. The company, a joint venture between Houston-based Quanta Services and Calgary-based ATCO, was tasked with operating, maintaining and modernizing the island’s beaten-down grid.

It got off to a rocky start.

A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that, in Luma’s first two months of operation on the island, Puerto Rico experienced “longer restoration times, voltage fluctuations and poor customer service.”

Improvements since then appear to have been slow to come, with power outages becoming the norm even before Hurricane Fiona, according to residents and media reports, leading to seemingly growing dissatisfaction with Luma. In September, a Puerto Rico resident told local news station WAPA TV: “Here, you blow out a birthday candle and the power goes out.”

“Since [Hurricane] Maria, they have basically just restrung the wires, they fixed some of the transfer stations, and the basic generation system is still the same,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of financial analysis at the IEEFA. “That means we’re sort of nowhere, and nothing’s really been fundamentally invested in the grid.”

Island residents have also protested due to Luma’s services. In July, about two months before Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, hundreds of residents marched to Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s home in Old San Juan, demanding the Luma contract be canceled.

Pierluisi told local newspaper El Nuevo Día that he asked Luma to make some management changes so the company could better handle the situation. Luma didn’t comment on those remarks but has said that the grid — which serves more than 1.4 million clients — had for decades been mismanaged by its predecessor, PREPA, and that “the more than 3,000 men and woman of LUMA are focused on restoring power to every customer impacted by Category 1 Hurricane Fiona and building and transforming the electric system for the future.”

“When we took over about 16 months ago, the situation of the power grid was 60% worse than the worst fourth-quartile utility in the country,” said Shay Bahramirad, senior vice president of engineering asset management and capital programs at Luma Energy.

Bahramirad said that, in those 16 months, the frequency of power outages has fallen by about 30% to 7.6 per year from about 10.6 per client. The company also said Oct. 10 that power had been restored to 99% of clients affected by Hurricane Fiona. After Hurricane Maria, some parts of the island were without power for roughly a year.

High electricity costs

Luma’s Bahramirad said the company has “nothing to do with increased electricity costs,” adding that this is primarily a function of higher energy costs around the world. Energy prices have soared this year in part due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Sanzillo of the IEEFA thinks this disparity could have been at least mitigated through improvements to the grid’s infrastructure.

“If you had changed considerable amounts of the system, you’d still have high prices — you can’t change everything overnight — but you would have been at least buffered a little bit,” Sanzillo said.

El Meson’s Pérez said he hasn’t received the electric bill for September yet but that he would not pay for “electricity that wasn’t consumed.”

All of this comes as Puerto Rico’s economy struggles to recover. FactSet data shows that Puerto Rico’s real GDP has fallen in nine of the past 10 years. On top of that, Puerto Rico’s population fell 11.8% from 2010 to 2020, while the overall U.S. population grew by 7.4% in that time, according to Census Bureau data.

“The exodus has been tremendous, especially among [young adults],” said Pérez. “The island needs young people who can assume leadership roles on the island.”

Stellantis debuts electric Jeep, pledges new energy target

The Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, photographed in Turin, Italy, on March 31, 2022.

Stefano Guidi | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The CEO of Stellantis told CNBC Monday that the company would use its own sites to generate half the energy it needs for manufacturing by the middle of this decade.

“We have decided the appropriate investments for Stellantis to be able, from a manufacturing standpoint, in 2025 to produce 50% of our energy needs within our own sites,” Carlos Tavares, who was speaking to CNBC’s Charlotte Reed at Paris Motor Show, said.

Tavares’ comments came as Stellantis geared up to debut what he called the “first pure-EV Jeep” after details of the vehicle were published last month.

According to Stellantis, the Jeep Avenger’s “targeted electric range” is 400 kilometers, or a little under 249 miles.

The firm — whose brands include Fiat, Chrysler and Citroen — is set to open up reservations for the Avenger on Monday, and it’s slated to arrive in showrooms next year.

Stellantis wants all passenger sales in Europe to be battery electric by the year 2030. In the U.S., it wants a “50% passenger car and light-duty truck BEV sales mix” within the same timeframe.

Stellantis’ electric vehicle plans put it in competition with firms such as Elon Musk’s Tesla as well as companies like Volkswagen, Ford, and GM. According to the International Energy Agency, electric vehicle sales are on course to hit an all-time high this year.

Electric vehicle (EV) sales set to hit an all-time high in 2022, IEA says

Tesla electric cars photographed in Germany on March 21, 2022. According to the International Energy Agency, electric vehicle sales are on course to hit an “all-time high” this year.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Electric vehicle sales are on course to hit an all-time high this year, but more work is needed in other sectors to put the planet on course for net-zero emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

In an announcement accompanying its Tracking Clean Energy Progress update, the IEA said there had been “encouraging signs of progress across a number of sectors” but cautioned that “stronger efforts” were required to put the world “on track to reach net zero emissions” by the middle of this century.

The TCEP, which is published yearly, looked at 55 parts of the energy system. Focusing on 2021, it analyzed these components’ progression when it came to hitting “key medium-term milestones by the end of this decade,” as laid out in the Paris-based organization’s net-zero pathway.

On the EV front, the IEA said global sales had doubled in 2021 to represent nearly 9% of the car market. Looking forward, 2022 was “expected to see another all-time high for electric vehicle sales, lifting them to 13% of total light duty vehicle sales globally.”

The IEA has previously stated that electric vehicle sales hit 6.6 million in 2021. In the first quarter of 2022, EV sales came to 2 million, a 75% increase compared to the first three months of 2021.

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The IEA said both EVs and lighting — where more than 50% of the worldwide market is now using LED tech — were “fully on track for their 2030 milestones” in its net-zero by 2050 scenario.

Despite the outlook for EVs, the IEA separately noted that they were “not yet a global phenomenon. Sales in developing and emerging countries have been slow due to higher purchase costs and a lack of charging infrastructure availability.”

Overall, the rest of the picture is a more challenging one. The IEA noted that 23 areas were “not on track” with a further 30 deemed as needing more effort.

“Areas not on track include improving the energy efficiency of building designs, developing clean and efficient district heating, phasing out coal-fired power generation, eliminating methane flaring, shifting aviation and shipping to cleaner fuels, and making cement, chemical and steel production cleaner,” the IEA said.

The shadow of 2015’s Paris Agreement looms large over the IEA’s report. Described by the United Nations as a “legally binding international treaty on climate change,” the accord aims to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.”

Cutting human-made carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 is seen as crucial when it comes to meeting the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

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In a statement issued Thursday the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol, appeared cautiously optimistic. “There are more signs than ever that the new global energy economy is advancing strongly,” he said.

“This reaffirms my belief that today’s global energy crisis can be a turning point towards a cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy system,” he added.

“But this new IEA analysis shows the need for greater and sustained efforts across a range of technologies and sectors to ensure the world can meet its energy and climate goals.”

The IEA’s report comes at a time when the debate and discussion about climate goals and the future of energy has become increasingly fierce.

This week, the U.N. secretary general said developed economies should impose an extra tax on the profits of fossil fuel firms, with the funds diverted to countries affected by climate change and households struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

In a wide-ranging address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Antonio Guterres described the fossil fuel industry as “feasting on hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and windfall profits while households’ budgets shrink and our planet burns.”

As Elon Musk backs fossil fuels, one strategist sends warning over EV sales

The uptake of electric vehicles has increased in recent years, as countries around the world attempt to reduce the environmental effects of transportation.

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Recent comments from Elon Musk about the need for more oil and gas reflect a broader concern that the uptake of electric vehicles will be hampered by rising electricity prices, according to the head of equity strategy at Saxo Bank.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe” on Tuesday morning, Peter Garnry said car manufacturers would face headwinds going forward.

“We see that in the 12 month trailing auto sales figures coming out of the U.S. and Europe — they’re coming down and they’re coming down pretty hard in Europe.”

On the electric vehicle front, Garnry noted that while the segment was “still expanding, expanding rapidly” there were also areas of potential concern.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence that you had Elon Musk in Stavanger, in Norway, talking about ‘please don’t decommission any more nuclear power plants’, you know … ‘we need oil and gas to do the clean transition, we need that bridge.'”

“And I think he’s very well aware that you cannot sell a lot of electrical vehicles with electricity prices going through the roof right now.”

“I mean, the cost advantage for electric vehicles versus a gasoline car is fast diminishing here in Europe, and I’m really wondering to what degree that will begin to impact sales for EVs.”

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Garnry’s remarks refer to a recent interview Musk gave at the ONS 2022 Conference in Norway, in which he offered up his opinion on fossil fuels and the wider energy transition.

“I, actually, am not someone who would tend to, sort of, demonize oil and gas, to be clear,” Musk said. “This is necessary right now, or civilization could not function.”

“And … at this time, I think we actually need more oil and gas, not less, but simultaneously moving as fast as we can to a sustainable energy economy,” the Tesla chief went on to state.

Musk, who also stressed the importance of renewables such as hydro, solar, geothermal and wind, later described himself as “pro nuclear” and said “we should really keep going with the nuclear plants.”

With European economies facing an energy crisis and soaring prices over the coming months, there have been concerns in some quarters that the increasing cost of charging an EV will disincentivize uptake among consumers.

In the U.K., at least, many discussions about the cost of charging an electric vehicle have taken place in recent weeks, especially after regulator Ofgem hiked the energy price cap.

The U.K.’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is set to announce a support package to address the cost-of-living crisis imminently, meaning that the overall effect of Ofgem’s decision is still uncertain.

In the days following the announcement of the new price cap, a spokesperson for motoring organization the RAC sketched out the current state of play.

“Despite recent falls in the price of petrol [gasoline] and diesel, the cost of charging at home is still good value compared to paying for either fuel, but again underlines just how the rising cost of electricity is affecting so many areas of people’s lives,” Rod Dennis said.

“We’re also aware that public chargepoint operators are having no choice but to increase their prices to reflect the rising wholesale costs they’re faced with, which will heavily impact drivers who have no choice other than to charge up away from home,” Dennis added.

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In the U.K., the current state of play when it comes to EVs makes for interesting reading.

On Monday, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said new registrations for battery electric vehicles in the U.K. hit 10,006 in August 2022, a year-on-year jump of 35.4%.

The SMMT nevertheless noted that “growth in this segment is slowing, with a year-to-date increase of 48.8%.” Comparatively, it said that “at the end of Q1, BEV registrations had been up by 101.9%.”

When it came to a longer term outlook, Saxo Bank’s Garnry cautioned there would be bumps in the road.

“If you look from mid-2008 to late 2020, that was a 12 year long bull market for intangible driven industries — so software, health care, media and entertainment, etcetera.”

“Since the vaccines were announced in November 2020, we have seen the tangible world come back,” Garnry said. This included car manufacturers and commodity companies.  

“They sit in the physical world … and we think the next eight years will … mean a lot of positive tailwind[s] for these tangible companies,” he added.

Medium to long term, this would be a positive for carmakers, “but there will be a pretty, pretty nasty adjustment period going ahead for this industry, unfortunately,” he added.

Why the U.S. is struggling to modernize its power grid

Blackouts are growing more frequent in the United States. The average American experienced just over eight hours of power outages in 2020, with overall duration of power interruptions in the U.S. more than doubling since 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“This is not because the grid has changed, but because there is so much greater threat from extreme weather,” said Alison Silverstein, an independent consultant at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “And the number of extreme weather events of every kind have increased significantly over the last decade, in particular.”

Despite the Biden administration’s effort to improve the situation, recent actions would suggest the federal government lacks the ability to enforce a grid modernization.

There were a total of 549 policy and deployment actions on grid modernization during the second quarter of 2022, but of the $12.86 billion in investment under consideration, regulators only approved $478.7 million, according to the NC Clean Energy Technology Center.

“Electricity systems are an area of shared federal and state jurisdictions,” according to Romany Webb, senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “The fact that we have this split authority between the federal government and the states is one of the factors that contributes to the complexity of the sort of modernizing the grid and building out additional infrastructure.”

What’s more, certain state and regional regulators often have political incentives to fight against changes to the power grid.

“The state entities that regulate electric utilities are called state public utility commissions,” said Webb. “In some states, those commissioners are elected. So if we’re talking about making investments that are going to be really expensive and are going to be increasing electricity bills, they might see a lot of pushback from customers about that and that might affect [the commissioners’] chances of reelection.”

Those directly affected by grid-modernization efforts say there are valid reasons to fight against such disruptive projects.

“We’re not opposed to solar, but it does not belong on farmland. It doesn’t belong in an agriculturally zoned area and it certainly does not belong on timberland,” said Susan Ralston, president of Citizens for Responsible Solar. “These projects are very destructive to the land and at the end of the day, we’re trying to do what’s right by our county. We’re trying to preserve the rural nature of our country and really convince our elected officials that the rural character is more important than caving into developers.”

Watch the video to find out more about why the U.S. power grid has become unreliable.

How GM, Ford, Tesla are tackling the national EV charging challenge

More people than ever are buying electric vehicles. There are about 2 million EVs on the road in the U.S., up six-fold since 2016, but the number of EVs is still a very small slice of the more than 280 million vehicles in operation. Some factors, such as upfront cost and battery range, are largely manufacturing and innovation challenges being handled inside companies. But another source of consumer resistance opens up a complex set of questions that will need to be addressed on a macro level – the availability of charging stations and a power grid that can handle them.

Currently, cars and trucks combine to produce about one-fifth of green-house gas emissions. In order to meet net-zero emissions targets in the decades ahead, consumers are going to have to buy a lot of electric vehicles, and they are going to need a lot of places to charge them. The Department of Energy actively tracks the total number of public charging stations (the total number of charging ports is higher) in the country, a number that now stands at 55,000. If that sounds like a lot, consider that there are close to three times as many gas stations. Also, bear in mind that although EV charge times vary widely, they are significantly slower than gassing up, so congestion is a significant issue at charging stations. 

According to a recent McKinsey & Company Report, about 20-times more charging stations will be needed than are now available, up to 1.2 million public chargers.

Where competition has been an important part of EV innovation, public and private cooperation will help to drive development of EV-charging infrastructure. The Biden administration recently announced new standards for EV charging in line with its goal of installing 500,000 additional charging stations by 2030, and the $7.5 billion set aside by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law represents the government’s first investment in EV chargers. The minimum standards will help establish the groundwork for states to build charging station projects that are accessible to all drivers regardless of the location, EV brand or charging company.

“Public funding is especially important for highway corridor charging given the challenging business case as the EV market continues grow,” said a GM spokesman.

Infrastructure doesn’t have the appeal of splashy new vehicle rollouts like the Chevy Silverado EV or Ford’s electric F-150 Lightning pickup, and as the GM spokesman explained, there is an ongoing need for cross-sector collaboration and policy support to streamline permitting, proactively engage electric utilities, accelerate siting and grid interconnection timelines, and eliminate other outstanding infrastructure deployment barriers.

“This really requires an ‘all hands on deck’ approach,” he said.

Part of the shortfall of charging infrastructure has to do with the nature of EV purchases thus far. Tesla represents 80% of the EV market in the U.S. With an entry-level Tesla costing around $50,000 and 80% of Tesla owners charging at home, the development of public charging stations has not kept pace with future needs. 

But there are signs this is changing. 

Tesla, which had used its own proprietary technology for its Supercharger network, has been moving away from that model. Last July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk noted in a tweet that Tesla created its own network because none existed. “We created our own connector, as there was no standard back then & Tesla was only maker of long range electric cars. That said, we’re making our Supercharger network open to all other EVs.” 

As GM sees it, the sheer number of chargers, while important, is only part of the story.

“We believe the focus needs to be on building an overall charging ecosystem that enables convenient, reliable, affordable charging access for all, and this is what we’re trying to do with Ultium Charge 360,” the GM spokesman said. This includes expanding access at home (including multi-family housing), at work, and in strategic public locations, as well as for additional use cases like fleets. “It also means getting the right chargers in the right locations to meet customer needs and build confidence both now and in the future,” he said.

At the Future of the Car conference in May, Musk said that Tesla will add CCS connectors to its Supercharger network: “It’s a little trickier in the U.S. because we have a different connector than the rest of the industry, but we will be adding the rest of the industry connector as an option to Superchargers in the U.S.,” Musk said. The combined-charger system (CCS) is standard across Europe, and adding the Tesla adapter gives Tesla-owners access to more charging options, combined with allowing non-Tesla owners access to the Supercharger network. 

In April, Musk — whose relationship with the Biden administration, and Democratic Party, has been tense — sat down with Biden officials and GM CEO Mary Barra to discuss EV-charging infrastructure. The Department of Transportation described the event in cooperative terms: “​​Broad consensus that charging stations and vehicles need to be interoperable and provide a seamless user experience, no matter what car you drive or where you charge your EV,” said a DoT statement.

Over the next ten years, Ford plans to increase spending on EVs by as much as $20 billion. Its BlueOval Charging Network is the largest public charging network in North America, with close to 20,000 charging stations featuring 60,000-plus plugs. Speaking about the rapid acceleration of its EV plans, Ford CEO Jim Farley said at a recent EV launch event, “That’s something that no one would have believed just two years ago from us.”

The culture surrounding EV-charging stations differs significantly from that of gas stations, with the prevalence of at-home charging raising questions about equity and access, and a divide between urban and rural areas, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. There are significant parts of rural America where one could drive for some time without seeing an EV-charging station, while filling stations punctuate the landscape at regular intervals. GM and Ford will have to be a big part of this essential effort to combat “charging deserts.”

GM, through its Dealer Community Charging Program, will distribute up to 10 charging stations to its EV dealers. This will add some 40,000 stations, evenly distributed across the country, particularly in underserved areas. This will help place many consumers in range of charging: nearly 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a GM dealership. As part of a $750 million initiative, these stations can be distributed at the discretion of the GM dealerships throughout their communities.

“We want to give customers the right tools and access to charging where and when they need it,” GM President Mark Reuss said in a statement last October about its goals, “while working with our dealer network to accelerate the expansion of accessible charging in underserved, rural and urban areas.”

GM expects most charging will occur at home, which is convenient for most customers. McKinsey estimates that the U.S. will need 28 million private chargers by 2030. GM’s Ultium smart chargers, which will be available later this year, will give customers and businesses the opportunity to roll the cost into lease payments and vehicle loans.

It is also placing charging in public locations where customers are already spending time intervals of 30 minutes to a few hours — such as grocery stores and gyms – to enable more convenient public charging. An example of this is GM’s collaboration with EVgo to install 3,250 DC fast chargers in major metropolitan areas by the end of 2025.

As challenging as the issue of charging deserts is the question of urban infrastructure, where even willing buyers – many of whom are also apartment dwellers – may have significant challenges in locating convenient and reliable charging stations. In an urban setting or in the case of urban fleets, a big issue is lack of garages or other facilities where individual charging stalls could be deployed. According to Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and member of the C2SMART Tier 1 Transport Center at NYU Tandon, a key solution is public charging infrastructure, which needs to be high-wattage (to ensure high charging power and thus charging speed) and multi-stall (to ensure that many EVs can charge at the same time).

“If you can buy a relatively cheap EV (if you collect all incentives and tax benefits), the purchasing price is affordable to a vast number of people living in U.S. urban areas and the real limit for adoption is in fact access to public charging infrastructure,” Dvorkin said. 

The major automakers are calling for an extension of those government incentives for EV purchases. Meanwhile, the recent infrastructure funding is an “important step forward” for EV infrastructure, Dvorkin said, but more as an opening to further R&D than a cure all.

There are numerous “techno-economic challenges,” Dvorkin said, to be solved beyond the direct control of the auto companies. Primary ones are permitting restrictions and, more essentially, power grid limitations. “Permitting is still a challenge and it may take months until an EV charging station is approved,” he said. “And there is a need to ensure that the grid is capable of delivering electric power to the EV charging stations; this requires the development of tools for deciding where EV charging infrastructure should be deployed in order to satisfy consumer demand and power grid limits.”

Actions from legacy automakers like GM and Ford underscore the cultural shift built into the move toward EVs and can spur a change in the national automotive culture. Although later to the game than Tesla, the big automakers represent core notions of the automobile long woven into the American imagination: freedom, possibility, escape — none of which play out very well if you can’t keep your battery charged. As GM and Ford pick up the pace of their EV manufacturing, and Tesla expands access to its EV-charging infrastructure, the larger imagination can move with them, with more readily available charging along the way.

“It’s Ford Motor Company … the Model-T. This is what we do. We aren’t some new start-up,” Farley recently told CNBC.  

By Trevor Laurence Jockims, special to CNBC.com

 

Renault says electric-hydrogen concept will have 497-mile range

Details of Renault’s Scénic Vision concept car were presented to the public on May 19, 2022. The firm’s idea of developing a passenger vehicle that uses hydrogen technology is not unique.

Benjamin Girette | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Renault has released details of an electric-hydrogen hybrid concept car, with the French automaker describing hydrogen technology as being “one of the options to make electric vehicles more convenient.”

The design for Renault’s Scenic Vision incorporates a hydrogen engine, electric motor, battery, fuel cell and a hydrogen tank. The 2.5 kilogram tank is located at the vehicle’s front and, Renault said, would take around five minutes to fill.

According to a document published on Thursday that outlined the concept, the Scenic Vision’s 40 kilowatt hour battery is recyclable and will be produced at a facility in France by 2024.

In a statement, Gilles Vidal, who is director of design at Renault, said the concept “prefigures the exterior design of the new Scénic 100% electric model for 2024.” The company said the electric-hydrogen powertrain was “part of a longer-term vision, beyond 2030.”

The broad idea is that the Scenic Vision’s hydrogen fuel cell would help extend the vehicle’s range during longer trips. “In 2030 and beyond, once the network of hydrogen stations is large enough, you will be able to drive up to 800 km [a little over 497 miles] … without stopping to charge the battery,” Renault said.

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Described by the International Energy Agency as a “versatile energy carrier,” hydrogen has a diverse range of applications and can be deployed in a wide range of industries.

It can be produced in a number of ways. One method includes using electrolysis, with an electric current splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen.

If the electricity used in this process comes from a renewable source such as wind or solar then some call it green or renewable hydrogen.

It’s envisaged that Renault’s hybrid would use green hydrogen, although the vast majority of hydrogen generation is currently based on fossil fuels.

Renault’s electric-hydrogen concept illustrates how car companies are looking to find ways to develop low and zero emission offerings that can compete with the range of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

“Several systems to complement electric motors are being explored today to address the requirements associated with long-distance driving,” Renault said. “Hydrogen technology is one of the options to make electric vehicles more convenient.”

In the field of hydrogen mobility, the Renault Group has already set up a joint venture with Plug Power called Hyvia. Among other things, it is focused on hydrogen fuel cells in light commercial vehicles and the rollout of hydrogen charging facilities.

Renault’s idea of developing a passenger vehicle that uses hydrogen technology is not unique.

Toyota, for instance, started working on the development of fuel-cell vehicles — where hydrogen from a tank mixes with oxygen, producing electricity — back in 1992. In 2014, the Japanese business launched the Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell sedan.

Other major companies like Hyundai and BMW are also looking at hydrogen, as well as smaller concerns such as U.K.-based Riversimple.

While the above companies are looking at the potential of hydrogen, some high-profile figures in the automotive sector are not so sure. In Feb. 2021, Herbert Diess, the CEO of Germany’s Volkswagen Group, weighed in on the subject. “It’s time for politicians to accept science,” he tweeted.

“Green hydrogen is needed for steel, chemical, aero … and should not end up in cars. Far too expensive, inefficient, slow and difficult to roll out and transport. After all: no #hydrogen cars in sight.”

Despite Thursday’s unveiling of the Scenic Vision concept, even Renault CEO Luca de Meo would appear to be cautious when it comes to talking about hydrogen’s prospects, according to comments published by Autocar.

Elsewhere, in Feb. 2020 Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment hammered home just how much competition hydrogen would face in the transportation sector.

T&E made the point that green hydrogen wouldn’t only have to “compete with grey and blue hydrogen,” which are produced using fossil fuels. “It will compete with petrol, diesel, marine fuel oil, kerosene and, of course, electricity,” T&E said.

“Wherever batteries are a practical solution — cars; vans; urban, regional and perhaps long-haul trucks; ferries — hydrogen will face an uphill struggle because of its lower efficiency and, as a result, much higher fuel costs.”

After the ‘hippie’ bus and Beetle, VW makes eyes at America once again

As Volkswagen looks to resurrect the Scout brand in the United States, CEO Herbert Diess has shed light on the decision, saying it represents an opportunity for the German auto giant to “become much more American.” 

VW announced plans to re-launch the Scout as a fully-electric pick-up and “rugged” SUV last Wednesday, with prototypes due to be revealed in 2023 and production planned to begin in 2026.

In the same announcement, the company said the vehicles would be “designed, engineered, and manufactured in the U.S. for American customers.”

“The United States is our biggest growth opportunity,” Diess, who was speaking to CNBC’s Annette Weisbach last week, said.

He went on to explain why the automaker was targeting the fiercely competitive American market.

“We are still very niche, very small, with about 4% market share [in the country],” he said. “We want to get up to 10% market share towards the end of this decade.”

Diess stressed that the firm had momentum, was profitable and “really making good progress with the electric cars.”

These vehicles include the fully electric ID Buzz, which is inspired by the T1 Microbus or “hippie” van. European versions of the ID Buzz are set to go on sale this year, with sales of an American model starting in 2024.

This image, from 1970, shows people driving a version of the Volkswagen Microbus at a rock festival in Oregon.

Brian Payne/Pix | Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images

VW hopes that the introduction of the Scout and ID Buzz will continue its tradition of introducing iconic designs to the U.S. market. Over the years, these have included the Beetle and various iterations of the Microbus, such as the one pictured above.

The Scout’s history dates back to the 1960s, when International Harvester — originally an agricultural company, now known as the Navistar International Corporation — started development. Today, Navistar is part of the Traton Group, a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group.

Production of the Scout ceased in 1980, but Volkswagen’s decision to re-launch it, and Diess’ comments, provide some clues to its strategy going forward.

“If we really want to become relevant in America, we have to look at the other segments,” he said. “And pick-ups, big SUVs, are very, very big in America.”  

Diess went on to describe Scout as a “beloved brand in the United States. So it’s a good opportunity for us to become much more American.”

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Asked if the Scout pickup would be solely for the U.S. market, he was non-committal. “I wouldn’t say ‘entirely dedicated’ but first and foremost … it’s an American product.”

“It will be an American product for American customers, designed for the American environment. Will it be sold outside? Maybe, later to be decided,” Deiss added.

VW is planning to set up a separate and independent company this year to design, engineer and manufacture the Scout pick-ups and SUVs for the U.S. market.

Volkswagen’s focus on electric vehicles is a world away from the “dieselgate” scandal that rocked it in the 2010s. Today, its electrification plans put it in direct competition with long-established automakers like GM and Ford, as well as relative newcomers such as Tesla.

On the company’s overall prospects in the U.S. going forward, Diess was bullish.

“We’re building up capacities in the United States … later this year, around August, ID 4 production will start in our Chattanooga facilities,” he said.

“We have programs for Audi and Porsche to increase their market share and … we will see some more products, electric products, being produced in America, for America.”

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