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Deja Vu for French Plug-In Plans

France installed electric-vehicle charging stations nationwide during the 1990s.
February 20, 2009

The French government launched a working group this week to coordinate installation of a standardized national charging network for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery-powered EVs. Many people may experience a sense of deja vu because it would be the second such charging network that the country has installed.

A charging sign in Montparnasse, Paris. Credit: Peter Fairley

President Nicolas Sarkozy has set a goal of seeing 100,000-plus electric vehicles on the road by 2012 and has offered French automakers bailout funding partially tied to the development of EVs. But as French state minister for industry Luc Chatel told French business magazine Usine Nouvelle [in French], “Their battery serves no point without the infrastructure to go with it.” Hence the working group established last week, representing automakers, energy distributors including state-owned nuclear utility EDF, municipalities, and other players. It will deliver a plan in June.

The move could be a boon to EDF, which has already partnered to develop sophisticated charging stations that are in use in London and as part of a demonstration program to test several prototypes of Toyota’s plug-in version of its Prius. The Elektrobay charging stations installed by U.K. company Elektromotive use EDF technology to set up a secure data exchange over the electrical connection between the EV and the charging station, through which the car communicates its charging needs and the station takes billing details.

Then again, EDF knows better than any other utility that there is a risk to the “build it and they will come” approach to infrastructure, having installed hundreds of chargers across France during the last EV craze of the 1990s. EDF had over 200 charging points available at 51 locations in Paris alone, according to this 2001 proposal to install a similar network in Brussels.

While all trace of this network has been wiped off EDF’s websites, at least some of the charge points remain active, as the sign above in the Montparnasse district of Paris attests. Business has presumably been slow and could continue to be so if battery costs remain high and gas prices low.

But who can say what the next decade will bring?

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