About that Tesla…

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Above: The interior of the freshly unwrapped Tesla Model S on the port. Photograph by Ian Smart, courtesy Smart Energy.

BitDepth#1045 for June 14, 2016

Ian Smart at his St James home office. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
Ian Smart at his St James home office. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Ian Smart has been interested in technology since he was a teenager and in renewable energy sources and technology since he began studying engineering at the University of Western Ontario.

That school’s engineering department participates annually in solar car races around the world fielding a vehicle known as a Sunstang.

Smart, 38, is the son of local lawyer Anthony Smart. He did his masters in renewable energy at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

He founded Smart Energy in 2003 and recalls, “My first act was to write an article for local newspapers about why T&T should go solar.”

The company’s first major project was to install a solar system to power a cell site at Chachacare for TSTT which delivers service to the islands off Trinidad’s northwest peninsula.

Smart Energy has installed solar powered mobile charging stations and does energy audits and installations for local business and government agencies, but wants to more deeply evangelise the importance of investing in renewable energy resources.

In development is a mobile phone app which will “gamify” green activities, pulling together interested individuals and companies willing to support useful efforts at environmental cleanup and resource management.

It hasn’t escaped the young entrepreneur’s notice that green initiatives have an uphill battle for local attention. Drunk on cheap gasoline and electric power, T&T citizens allow green projects to fall to the ground through inattention to be stepped on by petroleum dependent industrial boots or well-heeled Loubotins too rich to care about marginal concerns like CO2 output and waste per capita.

What Smart Energy needed was a rallying point and it’s certainly found it.

The Tesla Model S on the road in T&T under demonstration plates. Photograph by Ian Smart, courtesy Smart Energy.
The Tesla Model S on the road in T&T under demonstration plates. Photograph by Ian Smart, courtesy Smart Energy.

Ian Smart has been following the development of electric vehicles from Tesla since the company fielded the sporty Roadster model, and before taking the step of bringing one of the rare cars into Trinidad, spoke with local dealerships about the electric cars in their range.

To his surprise, nobody had one, or had any plans to introduce a model.

“We don’t want to be pigeonholed into just Tesla,” Smart said, “we aren’t a car dealership.”

But the pervasive corporate disinterest in electric cars may push Smart Energy more firmly in that direction and they are considering midrange electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf.

Smart Energy has imported a Model S, the Tesla company’s luxury sedan () as its talking point car for the new initiative.

The choice of vehicle was driven by the company’s reputation in the sector.

“Tesla stands out among electric cars,” Smart said.

“The image of such vehicles was of a car that was slow, small, short-ranged and definitely not sexy. Tesla flipped that on its head.”

The Model S is available in a range of configurations which scale the price between US$70,000 and $120,000, the mass market model Model 3 starts at US$35,000.

Smart Energy worked on the project for two years and sourced a Model S built in the US for the European market to get the right-hand drive configuration.

“We are a small company, and we want to partner with larger companies to make the projects work.”

But he’s been finding that all the interest is in the bridge vehicles, CNG powered cars and hybrids.

Even the government has been slow to implement its removal of import charges on electric cars, and the importation of the Model S hit several hiccups on entry the port racing ahead of the execution of Parliamentary changes in the import regime for green and alternative energy vehicles.

“I don’t think hybrids will be around for much longer,” Smart said.

“I don’t want to down cry other alternative fuels, but I believe that electric cars are future proof. There are things coming with the development of electric cars that are going to herald a new model for technology.”

“Combustion cars have reached their plateau, and electric cars are now beginning to hit economies of scale in production. There are at least a dozen startups focusing on the space.”

The Nissan Leaf is popular in Barbados, with at least 150 vehicles on the road. In the time they have been in use, the cost of their batteries has dropped to one fifth of the original price.

To operate the Model S locally, a charging station has to be wired into the home to deliver 220 volts, which can charge the car in 10 hours at a cost of around TT$30. On a full charge, the car has a range of 400km, which makes it far more energy efficient than a gas powered vehicle.

Smart Energy plans to train selected garages in basic maintenance, but because electric cars have dramatically fewer moving parts, no plugs and no oil, relationships with mechanics are likely to become strained.

One Model S owner of Ian Smart’s acquaintance has had maintenance done once in two years. The Nissan Leafs in operation in Barbados average two maintenance visits over the course of three years.

The Leaf has a shorter range, and Smart Energy envisions solar powered charging stations deployed at key points in T&T to support them.

Information about the landed cost will be revealed at the launch of the Model S on June 18, and the car was still to be licensed and insured for use on the road, so until then, you’ll just have to accept Ian Smart’s experience with the vehicle.

“It’s the most incredible acceleration I’ve ever experienced,” Smart said.

“The car is silent and rides smoothly, so there are no audible or motion cues to tell you how fast it’s going.”

“We didn’t take all the options, but we have some.”

The touchscreen dashboard, leather interior and glass roof are standard for the Model S.

Once Smart and his colleagues are past the buzz of being the “Tesla guys,” the next step is Smart Energy Automotive, a planned subsidiary of the company which will seek partnerships with other companies operating in the space in the region to collaborate on parts, maintenance and support systems.

“Our role is to make the case for doing something better for the environment,” Smart said, “We want to be electric car evangelists.”