Hooking up Quebec drivers to the grid

BOUCHERVILLE, QUEBEC - The near-collapse of the North American car industry and the election of Barack Obama seriously jolted the on-again-off-again switchover to cleaner cars. This time there's a good chance the conversion toward the ultimate goal of pure electric cars will stick.

For 30 years, Quebec politicians and Hydro-Québec have speechified about how our vast, available and ready source of power was a God-sent natural fit with electric cars. In reality, little of significance has been done to harness Hydro's reach and expertise to actual market forces. Indeed, the most advanced project the utility had - the Avestor partnership to build lithium metal polymer batteries in Boucherville - was sold two years ago to France's Groupe Bolloré after going bust.

But that sale had a happier outcome than most. It culminated last week in perhaps the most important investment in electric-car technology in Quebec history.

That's when French billionaire Vincent Bolloré, flanked by French Industry Minister Christian Estrosi, came to Boucherville and announced a $120-million infusion - all private money - to triple the production capacity of the former Avestor plant, renamed Bathium.

That money will not resolve all the uncertainty and knock down all the technical and market roadblocks pure electric vehicles face. But it's a $120-million vote of confidence in what car consultant Dennis DesRosiers of Toronto's DesRosiers Automotive Research called "the most exciting technological breakthrough in our industry's history - the most exciting technological frontier since conventional fuel engines."

Decades' worth of idle chatter by car companies, environmentalists and consumers about converting to a green fleet is at long last morphing into actual action in the marketplace these days - incipient and tentative action, true, but action nonetheless.

Car companies are all coming out with electric models starting next year. Entrepreneurs in many countries are setting up ventures to produce electric batteries of different types. Electric-car research institutes are sprouting worldwide (notably in Israel, which is investing massively in a network to sustain a mass electric market) and startups, like California's Tesla and St. Jérôme's ZENN (zero emission no noise), are groping their way on to the ground floor of the fledgling electric-car industry.

For Jean-Luc Monfort, Bathium has found its niche. The general manager of Bathium said that the 500 patents granted to the lithium metal polymer battery his firm produces untie "the Gordian Knot" that's at the root of the electric-car dilemma — how to store enough easily-renewable energy in a dependable battery with an acceptable weight.

Monfort said there are "tens, dozens" of variants, including lithium-ion batteries preferred by the large car manufacturers and fuel-cell alternatives, but he insisted that none is as advanced or dependable as his made-in-Quebec LMP, which was developed by a researcher at France's Centre national de recherches scientifiques and a Quebec researcher. Bathium now plans to hire 250 people within three years, and to turn out 15,000 batteries a year by 2013.

Estrosi conceded the investment was "risky", but also "a winning bet." Time will tell, but Monfort said that Bolloré "likes to invest in stuff that the experts always know will never work. He's made (billions) that way, ever since he bought back his family's original (printing) firm (in 1981 for a symbolic one franc)."

One of the reasons he believes companies like his are technologically ahead of the large manufacturers, said Monfort, is that "they kind of have a vested interest in keeping their thermal-engine businesses."

If Bathium's gamble pays off, it won't exactly turn Boucherville into the new Detroit. The batteries are destined for another Bolloré investment — the Bluecar, a subcompact four-seater that's in the conception stages, to be built by Italy's Pininfarina, and then followed by the Gruau electric microbus produced in France.

But Monfort said "we're open to any solicitation or collaboration" to sell any excess production eventually to other car manufacturers. Peugeot and BMW are rumoured to be interested.

But the road is never smooth in the car industry, as ZENN found out. The former car company has ceased production and has allied with Texas-based EEStor to concentrate its efforts on selling its ultra-capacitor power-train systems, in essence a solid-state battery.

ZENN is "kind of the rogue in this business, we've taken our own path," firm spokesperson Catherine Scrimgeour said. "Ours is a solid state battery, because we believe that chemical-based ones lose performance in extreme conditions."

Meanwhile, Loïc Daigneault is going his own way, retrofitting 2004 to 2006 Mazda 3s to electric — as soon as the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec graciously gives him its assent.

"The whole industry is at a fever pitch," said the owner of the garage called Voitures Électriques du Québec.

"Our website got more than 200,000 hits and we have a waiting list of 600 customers, although not all will buy a car."

"But business is hot, hot, hot."

That's despite a price tag of between $25,000 and $30,000 per Mazda 3, once (and assuming) it starts.

Daigneault won't slay the giant car manufacturers, but he believes he has found a niche to fill supplying to people who want electric cars now "while the big guys fiddle around with everything conceivable except what they should, like keeping your gloves cool in the glove compartments — pure drivel — instead of spending every penny on their battery problems."

Bill Williams, California sales director for ZENN, said that one of the most persistent problems with electric cars is the myths that surround them — like running out of power unexpectedly.

"People will have to understand eventually that if you don't run out of gas now, you won't run out of electricity - as long as you can read a gauge."

And an infrastructure to service electric cars is slowly but surely taking root — at least in California.

Whatever ultimately replaces the combustion engine — lithium-ion, lithium-polymer, fuel-cell, solid-state, or all (or none) of the above, the new industrial revolution is on, said DesRosiers, and it is one that will actually be a return to the birth of the car business a century ago, when the first cars of Henry Ford and other pioneers ran on electric batteries.

But before you bet the mortgage on electric-battery stock picks, DesRosiers has a sobering perspective amid all the excitement.

Out of an automotive park of about 280 million vehicles in North America — Canada, the U.S. and Mexico — there are, at the moment, "maybe, if you're generous, about 1,000 electric vehicles," he said.

That's understandable given no manufacturer mass-produces them. More daunting and worrisome for the future of electric cars, he notes, is the example of the Prius.

Toyota's vaunted hybrid gas-electric car may have gotten the mother of all press coverage in the decade since it was introduced. But Desrosiers said the hype is completely out of proportion with the cold, hard numbers. Toyota has still sold only about 100,000 Priuses in 10 years, said Desrosiers, about 10,000 of those in Canada, a tiny, insignificant fraction.

"There are high risks, a high possibility that it might all fail and fail miserably."

On the upside, some of those laying the groundwork now will reap untold rewards later, DesRosiers said.

But a note of caution: Patience will be king.

By 2020, he estimates, when the North American market will be about 300 million vehicles, only about 5 million in total will be hybrids and electric — of which only about 1.5 million will be pure electric.

Véronique Lamy of the Institut de transport avancé du Québec said that a viable global, mass electric-vehicle industry will coalesce and thrive of its own accord only after governments grant tax credits to consumers, as is already the case in Quebec and some parts of the U.S.

"What's interesting about this business," said ZENN's Williams, "is that these are real pioneer days."


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