Afterword

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?

6 comments:

  1. Sure, even Bhutan could become a better place, even if the concept seems more appropriate for just about any other country...

    The limitations of the REVA as pictured are not speed - hard to imagine going 80 kph on any roads here! - nor even distance especially for town dwellers.

    For long distance trips, a battery-exchange scheme should be possible, existing towns are nicely distributed for this.

    But if long-distance travel is really to be envisaged, as it probably should be, the problem would be the need to develop a car suitable for Bhutan's roads. Most of the countries promoting and developing electric vehicles have a "smoother" road network.

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  2. @KenA, I'm not sure that an all-terrain EV is the most urgent requirement. Most vehicles in Bhutan, I suspect, are of the "city" type. Up-to-date RSTA statistics are not available, but I suspect there are many more small vehicles (Maruti Altos etc) as compared to mid-size SUVs and other "all-terrain" vehicles. We see these small cars on the Lateral Road, as well as many other black-topped (and often non-black-topped) roads.

    As for the distance limitation, hundreds of taxis easily exceed this limit daily. Also, there are more and more people commuting to Thimphu daily, many from Paro. Paro-Thimphu-Paro exceeds the distance limitation of the REVA, for example. And most importantly, people would not buy a car that cannot drive them to their village.

    As long as a car cannot be driven continuously, people will not perceive it as a "real" car.

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  3. For the Paro-Thimphu roundtrip and other long-distance travel, I thought we talking about some kind of battery-swapping arrangement. It may be complicated to implement, but it could be a viable alternative to importing petrol and hauling it around the country.

    So, maybe to your points about commercial and interurban use, but quite apart from "all-terrain" driving, on my recent drive to Bumthang I'd have been worried about a short circuit, driving a battery-laden 12- or 13-inch wheeled REVA through some of the more watery places!

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  4. Anyway, for some combination of the reasons we each state, the existing REVA has limited scope in Bhutan, and addressing that is not part of the the "Better Place" solution. But whichever company gets the deal, I think we agree it could be really swell if indigenous hydropower could replace some imported petrol.

    Regarding the perception of "real car" I would suggest that the REVA people, as well as those who launched the Smart in Europe, play to the buyers who appreciate this ambiguity. No, it doesn't look like a normal car, but who knows? It might quickly acquire the prestige of a Prado...

    Still doubtful it would pay to design an appropriate vehicle for the small, unique market that is Bhutan.

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  5. Thunder Motors Electric Vehicles is a Thimphu based company designing and assembling electric cars suited for Bhutan's terrain and road conditions. Our first cars will be on the road by Jan 2012. The National Environment Commission is our first customer.

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  6. Thunder Motors Electric Vehicles first car, suited for Bhutan's terrain and road conditions is supposed to be on roads by Jan 2012, but suprisingly i have never heard of one running on bhutanese roads...sad to know that its already nov 2012....waiting to see one such EV so that we could think of switching to one...

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