ThimphuTech was the first technology blog in Bhutan. We started writing it in 2009, just as broadband and mobile internet started to take off. (Although internet in Bhutan was launched in 1999, it was either super-slow or super-expensive, and was only used by a selected few).

In the blog, we wrote about technology and food, but also about plenty of other stuff. The blog became popular and influential in Bhutan. A companion bi-weekly column -- Ask Boaz -- was published for many years in the Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper. (The complete Kuensel columns are available as an ebook, Blogging with Dragons).

We stopped updating the blog when we left Bhutan in 2014, but the information within the posts can still prove useful, and thus we decided to keep it online.

We thank all our readers.
Tashi Delek,
Boaz & Galit.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Can Bhutan become a "Better Place"?

Currently in Thimphu: The REVA
With the availability of cheap electricity and an emphasis on environmental conservation, electric vehicles (EVs) are a natural fit for Bhutan. EVs reduce the dependency on foreign oil and enable zero-emission driving. However, there are many challenges with EVs, such as speed, battery recharge time, driving ranges, and more. Traditional EVs cannot compete with conventional combustion-engine vehicles when it comes to speed, driving ranges, and passenger capacity. For example, the REVA electric car that you see around Thimphu can run only 80 km before a recharge, a normal charge takes 8 hours, and its maximum speed is 80 km/h.

Is this the future? Better Place's Renault Fluence Z.E.
One company is set to change all that: Better Place. Launched just 4 years ago, Better Place provides a complete solution, which includes high-performance EVs, batteries, a charging network with charging points, as well as battery-switching stations. Similar to petrol stations, when your car's battery is about to run out, you can drive into the nearest battery-switching station, and in a few minutes the vehicle's battery is replaced, enabling cars to run continuously with an unlimited driving range.

Better Place's business model is unique (and controversial). It is similar to buying prepaid minutes with your mobile provider. The customer buys a certain number of kilometers per year at a fixed cost per kilometer. You can read more about it here. Deploying an EV network is quicker and more efficient in small "Island"-like countries, and thus Better Place networks are initially being deployed in Denmark and Israel. Hawaii and Australia have also signed in.

Here's a short video showing the system at work:

Back to Bhutan: We already mentioned the low cost of electricity. The road network here is ideal for an EV network deployment, since a relatively small number of battery-switching stations can easily cover the 557 km of the Lateral Road (Phuentsholing to Trashigang), and a few other stations can cover the longitudinal roads. Bhutan, like Israel or Denmark, is also a small "Island", in the sense that most cars are driven within the country, thereby making the switching stations within the country sufficient.

Yes, this requires careful examination and long term planning. But given the ever-growing number of vehicles, their environmental impact, and the increasing prices of petrol, one must wonder: Is it time for the RGoB to invite Shai Agassi, the CEO and Founder of Better Place, for a visit in Bhutan?