Pyotr Movchan, who heads Portal Energy – a St Petersburg company that develops and manufactures its own charging stations for electric vehicles – set out to prove that Russia, despite the stereotypes, can indeed be crossed in an electric car.
The Tesla Model 3 Long Range, capable of driving 700 kilometers on a single charge, turned out to be the choice for his 9,900-kilometer cross country trip, starting in St Petersburg on the West Coast to Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast 11 time zones to the east. Along the way, Movchan’s company installed charging stations, which can now be used by owners of electric vehicles in different regions of the country.
Bellona talked with the organizer of this unique road trip, and asked what electric mobility looks like in Russia outside of large metropolitan areas and queried Movchan on what can aid the development of electric vehicle transport in our country.
Electric cars are coming to Russia from the East
Bellona: So, Pyotor, you drove across Russia in an electric car, placing 18 stations of your own production along the way. What kind of problems did you want to solve with this traveling salesmanship? Did you want to test whether the stations are suitable for the conditions of non-capital Russian cities? To prove that Russia is electro-navigable all over?
Movchan: No, I wouldn’t say that our stations had to somehow be “tested” under special conditions. They can work and charge in any conditions. Whether they are in Moscow or Chita, there is not much difference. But we really wanted to show different Russian regions that such stations are easy to install and operate, which means that it is possible to develop an infrastructure for electric mobility in the regions right now, without waiting for any special decisions.
B: Looking from St. Petersburg or Moscow, do you imagine the attitude toward electric vehicles in different cities and regions of Russia? To what extent are Russians, based on your experience, inclined to show interest in such transport, to consider it a serious choice for life?
M: The first thing that should probably be said is that none of the cities we passed through, including the ones we installed charging stations in, looked at us with skepticism. We piqued interest among residents, businesses, and city authorities. As a rule, we tried to organize meetings with local administrations in order to present our plans, explain how we can develop charging infrastructure, and in absolutely all cities, officials welcomed us, clearly showing interest in this issue and talking about how they themselves see the development of electric transport in their cities.
B: How can an average official in a provincial city be so interested in the development of electric transport such that he opens the door and welcomes a visiting traveler in a Tesla with plans for the development of charging stations?
M: I believe that all of them, one way or another, have been informed about the idea that electromobility will develop in Russia. And after the adoption in August of the government concept for the development of electric road transport, local authorities more or less realize that they should work in this area as well.
At the same time, it cannot be said that so far all this is only planning for distant projects. Infrastructure is already developing, charging stations are working, and an electric car is no longer news or a curiosity.
B: And where, in areas outside the Russian capital cities, is electric transport popular?
M: First of all, they buy electric cars in the east. Irkutsk, Chita, Khabarovsk are cities where no one sees electric cars as exotic. These are the Russian regions where the car stock is replenished with used cars from Japan, among which you often find electric cars. When we drove through Siberia, we met trucks that were carrying Japanese cars to different cities on flatbeds.
Each of these flatbeds usually contained one or two used Nissan Leafs – apparently, this is the most common electric car beyond the Urals. Those who buy them are most likely guided by financial considerations. It is not expensive on its own and owners can expect to save on fuel costs.
True, as I said, in many cities, this savings is coupled with the need to use such a car without any charging infrastructure. That is, life with an electric car can, one way or another be a pain in the neck – with charging the battery from a home outlet, throwing a cable through a window and other corresponding inconveniences.
And yet a used Nissan Leaf for a buyer across the Urals is just one of the opportunities to buy an inexpensive and economical car to use. Since cities in this part of the country are, on average, poorer than those to the west of the Urals, the choice is significant there. In European Russia, the average buyer might want to buy a slightly more expensive car from Europe with an internal combustion engine.
B: How does battery charging work on a used car? Does this create additional problems?
M: It all depends on the model of the car. On a Nissan Leaf, batteries do degrade by several percent per year. And on car of 2013 vintage, which ends up on the used market in Russia, the battery capacity will be, God forbid, 70% of the original. That is, it will be possible to drive on one charge from 60 to, maximum 110 kilometers.
But let’s say Tesla doesn’t have that problem. There is a different chemical principle of the battery, there is a system of its forced water cooling, so that Tesla batteries – even in used cars, almost never lose power. However, soon Chinese models should arrive on the Russian market. They, of course, will be more expensive than a used Nissan, but their mileage on a single charge is from 300 kilometers. So, I think they will find their buyers in Siberia and the Far East.
Almost without tow lines
B: One way or another, as you say, people in Siberia and the Far East are showing interest in electric vehicles. The presence of consumers should create a specific niche that will create a more comfortable environment for electric vehicle owners.
M: In principle, little by little, this is happening. For example, some entrepreneurs who drive electric cars sometimes throw down on a charging station for their own joint use. But then, they turn around and open it to the public and set a tariff somehow minimize costs. And someone thinks about business strategies. Well, here we also offer something.
B: And yet the electric car in cities beyond the Urals, apparently, is intended for travel only within the city. It is unlikely that you will master large areas with it.
M: Of course, no one in their right mind will drive a Nissan Leaf on the highway.
B: But you still drove an electric car to Vladivostok. That is, such a trip is feasible.
M: Yes, it is possible if you do not set yourself the task of traveling through the country quickly and with convenience. Our electric car has the most powerful charge – enough for 700 kilometers. However, such a trip is, in any case, a trip from city to city, where the car needs to be recharged again. But in principle, our trip showed that for cars that charge more than 400 kilometers, such trips are theoretically– and this would be in an Audi e-tron or Porche Taycan, and various Tesla model – such trips around the country, including Siberia, are possible. Including, and with the help of, our stations.
B: The most difficult part of any trip through Siberia is considered to be the section between Chita and Khabarovsk, where as recently as a decade and a half ago, there weren’t really any highways. There also aren’t many populated points in the territory either. How did you manage that part of the drive?
M: Yes, indeed, this site presented a problem. One of the critical points in this segment is the city of Skovorodino, a trans Siberian junction point near the Chinese border. From there the road goes to Yakutsk (to the North) or Blagoveshchensk (to the South). It is more than 900 kilometers to go to Skovorodino from Chita. This is more than the abilities of our machine. In addition, the road passes through the mountains, which additionally eats up the charge.
As a result, between Chita and Skovorodino, we had to ask a passing truck to tow us on a line so we could recharge from the towing itself. We were towed for about 80 kilometers. During this time, Tesla gathered enough charge for the next 500 kilometers. But this is the only time during the entire trip when had to charge by towing. By the way, our charging station has now been installed in Skovorodino itself.
B: How did people react to the appearance of a traveler in a Tesla in cities like Skovorodino?
M: For small towns, the appearance of such a machine is a sensation. That is, people – residents gathered around us, took pictures of the car. This was clearly a significant event for them.
B: Wasn’t there an attitude that electric vehicles are just a big city whim, inappropriate to the harsh outback?
M: Just the opposite. It was in Skovorodino that we talked with local businessmen who drive very decent cars, and they mostly shared their annoyance that, relatively speaking, the whole of Europe already drives Tesla, and in their town there is nothing suitable for such a car.
The demand for current
B: You have installed 18 charging stations in different cities from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. How will their work proceed now? Who is the operator of this infrastructure?
M: We continue to monitor the stations. Our software and controllers are there. Our engineers remotely monitor the state of the stations 24 hours a day. In addition, in every city where the stations operate, there are people who can come and eliminate possible malfunctions.
B: Are there any statistics on the use of these stations?
M: We can say that they are being used everywhere. But, of course, so far the intensity of such use is not very high – since, despite the rising figures for the electric vehicle fleet, there are not many EVs in Russian cities. In any case, in many cities, our charging stations were the first infrastructure for electric vehicles to function normally. In some places, there were no such stations at all. In other places some stations theoretically existed, but their use was a separate adventure, where it was necessary to come to a special point, negotiate with the guards without a guarantee that the station would be turned on at all. But in the same Skovorodino –the city as far away from any major centers as possible – our station turned out to be in demand. Some recharge their hybrids on it, several taxi drivers in the city work on Nissan Leafs and so on – so we are needed there.
B: But how, in this case, is the work of such stations commercially justified?
M: At this point, of course, there can be no talk of any kind of commerce. But this is groundwork for the future. Sooner or later, these investments will pay off – as the fleet of electric vehicles grows. And our investors understand this and are ready to wait.
B: And how much do you charge for the electricity sold at your stations?
M: We do not have a single tariff. It depends on the incoming cost of electricity, which turns out to be different in different regions. In principle, at all meetings with regional officials, I tried to convince them of the need to introduce a separate electricity tariff for car charging stations. For example, such a tariff has already been introduced in Sakhalin – it is higher than the cost of electricity for residential consumers, but lower than the commercial one. And for them, this has led to the rapid development of a charging infrastructure.
I can only say that the officials in general considered my arguments carefully and, at least, promised to work out this issue. I think everyone is waiting for steps from the federal authorities. They want, for example, to see how the promise to subsidize the development of infrastructure for electric transport will be fulfilled. This is no less interesting to us.