Planet Gore

Copenhagen Shows Off Its Auto-utopia

In describing Kyoto 2.0-host Denmark’s alliance with Better Place to revolutionize automobility with electric cars, the New York Times got off to shaky start Wednesday. “By revamping the power grid,” begins the paper of record, “(Denmark’s biggest utility) Dong Energy wants to power the anticipated fleet of electric cars with wind energy, which already supplies nearly 20 percent of the country’s power.”

Well . . . that’s according to the Denmark government, where green is state religion. But according to the government’s own records, wind is 20 percent of electric capacity — not production. Since the wind doesn’t blow all the time, actual wind-production rates in Europe average 20 percent, which would mean Denmark only gets 4 percent of its power from wind. Independent studies over the last decade put the number between 2 and 3 percent.

After that stumble, however, the Times is more clear-eyed on where Denmark’s green auto-utopia comes up short. Let’s count the ways:

Denmark’s Trabant. The government offers a minimum $40,000 tax break on each new electric car — or roughly the cost of a Chevy Volt. Since only one manufacturer, Renault Nissan, provides cars for Better Place, this amounts to a state-approved car.

– State-approved cars are slow to market. “In January 2009,” reports the Times, “(Better Place) promised that Denmark would have 100,000 charging spots in place and several thousand cars on the road by 2010. But with that deadline approaching, no Better Place cars are on the road and only 55 charging spots are ready.”

– Standardized cars? While the promised charging spots take care of short commutes, the Better Place plan relies on very expensive “switching stations” for longer trips. But accommodating thousands of cars switching out batteries after their 100-mile capacity is used up requires a standardized battery. It’s not a business plan automaker’s embrace. “A standardized battery would have to result from a standardized car,” says a Daimler Benz exec, “and a standardized car didn’t work under socialism in East Germany.” Ouch. There’s that Trabi analogy again.
Better Place founder Shia Agassi shrugs off such doubts, reports the Times, because electric cars are a moral necessity to cleanse the planet of our global-warming sins.

But morality in Denmark is getting expensive. Wind mandates have already driven the country’s electric rates to 30 cents per kWh, the highest in Europe and double the costliest states in the U.S. To encourage electrics, Denmark levels a punitive tax of 200 percent on gas cars, meaning the petrol-powered equivalent of a $20,000 Renault Nissan costs $60,000.

“Government,” crows Mr. Agassi , “is willing to do whatever it takes to get Denmark to be a leader in electric vehicles.” Not a very reassuring thought.