The German city of Braunschweig's noisy fleet of diesel buses recently got some quiet competition. For a number of weeks now, an inductively charged E-bus has been quietly humming its way along one of the city’s busiest routes, the M19. And in spring next year, four more of the 18-meter-long articulated buses will be put into service on the 12.6 kilometer ring road. Induction charging coils installed below the road surface at three of the 25 bus stops along the route ensure that the buses always have enough power. The charging time is extremely short. The main charging station at Braunschweig’s central railway station bus terminal can re-charge a bus to 100 percent of battery capacity in just on eight minutes, while at the other two charging stations along the route, a 25-second stop provides enough of a top-up to keep the buses moving.
"We deliberately chose not trial this new electric mobility solution on a test circuit, but decided instead to integrate it into our existing public transport network from day one," explained Christopher Graffam, the press spokesman for Braunschweig’s municipally owned public transport company, Braunschweiger Verkehrs-GmbH. "Our new, inductively charged E-buses deliver the exact same performance as our diesel buses," stressed Graffam. "And while we don't yet know what the total cost of ownership will be, I think it's already safe to say that we will be spending less on maintenance as compared with our diesel fleet." The obvious benefits of Braunschweig’s pioneering eMobility project have already prompted transport experts from as far afield as Turkey, Colombia and India to visit the city to learn more about the technology and assess whether it represents a viable solution to the rampant traffic congestion that is choking the major urban centers in their home countries.
While most German cities have not yet been as pro-active in implementing eMobility systems as Braunschweig, the country’s leading municipal associations do recognize the significance of this up-and-coming technology. Stephan Articus, Executive Director of the German Association of Cities: "Our members are committed to furthering the cause of sustainable and resource-efficient mobility systems and fully support the federal government's endeavors to increase the number of electric vehicles on German roads.” In September, Germany’s coalition government enacted a new electric mobility law that is designed to encourage the use of e-vehicles in Germany's urban centers – not least to safeguard air quality, which is threatening to fall below mandated minimum levels in many cities across the Federal Republic. Another of the law's objectives, according to Germany's Federal Minister for the Environment, Barbara Hendricks, is "to create a legal framework that will enable alternative forms of mobility to be better integrated into future urban development projects."
However, in the view of the General Director of the German Association of Local Public Utilities (VKU), Hans-Joachim Reck, further steps are required if the German government's ambitious goal of "one million electric cars by 2020" is to be reached.
One day a profitable business
"There is no shortage of initiatives among our members, but the high capital investment cost associated with eMobility projects mean that the various business models simply aren't viable. Another problem is that there's been too much focus on selling kilowatt hours. But kilowatt hours are becoming less and less relevant as the basis for value creation across the energy system as a whole. Going forward, our focus needs to shift to providing a service. Mobility itself is a valuable commodity, which is why we can't expect it to come at zero cost." As an example, Reck points to the high cost of charging stations, which range from 8,000 to 15,000 euros. For Reck, the building of charging infrastructure is not just a matter for the state or local public utilities. Private companies, such as food retailers, should also carry some of the burden. "Nonetheless, municipal utilities are already happy to install and operate charging infrastructure on behalf of the private sector," he said.
Sebastian Dix, the spokesman for the German utility Stadtwerk am See, is also doubtful about his company's prospects of turning a profit from electric mobility in the short to medium term: "Profits are hard to come by in the eMobility business." Despite this, Stadtwerk am See has invested in some eMobility infrastructure, such as charging stations for electric bicycles and cars. It also offers one-off subsidies to anyone in the district who purchases an e-bike. "For us, eMobility is still something we chalk up to "customer service," though it's possible it could turn into a profitable business one day when we have a smarter electric grid and a comprehensive network of e-filling stations," Dix added.
This type of approach still falls short of the expectations of Germany’s Federal Association for eMobility (BEM). "German municipalities have a key role to play in the future development of eMobility in this country," said BEM President Kurt Sigl. In his view, the notion that electric transport models are not yet economically viable is a lame excuse. Sigl is confident that "eMobility is already a profitable investment proposition for Germany’s municipalities. What's needed is a change of mindset in the city treasuries" – a criticism that obviously does not apply to the many E-bus champions working in Braunschweig’s municipal bodies.