The lack of a comprehensive and user-friendly charging infrastructure has been the bottleneck in the Finnish electric car business for a long time. In order to deal with this challenge, a group of domestic energy companies established Virta Ltd, a few years ago. This charging operator allows drivers to charge their batteries at any charging station in Finland that carries the Virtapiste mark.
Virta Ltd was founded after extensive research work that Aalto was closely involved in.
'We worked on two Tekes projects and the Innovative City programme run by the City of Helsinki and Aalto University to determine the starting points for the business and investigate all possible legal barriers in order to specify the role of a charging operator,' says Matti Lehtonen, a professor at the School of Electrical Engineering.
'Fortunately there were no barriers and the role was defined as that of electricity purchaser, which means that the local electricity grid operator has to sell electricity transmission services to the charging operator at the same price and terms as to any other consumer,' he explains.
A huge success
For electric car owners, one of the benefits of Virta Ltd is the consistency of the charging network: it's just as easy to charge a battery in Helsinki or Oulu, in a shopping centre parking hall or a restaurant parking lot. Smooth use is also important. Vehicle owners become members by registering with the online service. A mobile application locates and reserves the nearest vacant station and identifies the user, and the payment is then debited from an active user account operating on a pre-paid basis.
In addition to making it easier to use an electric car, a charging operator also facilitates the related business.
'Charging station owners and charging service providers can join a single, nation-wide network and gain immediate access to a technical platform and 24/7 support services,' explains company CEO Jussi Palola. Palola earned a doctoral degree at Aalto and was actively involved in the research that preceded the founding of Virta Ltd.
'Aalto's efforts were very important in that work,' he emphasises.
'This is also an excellent example of how knowledge can lead to new business. When the project began, we were given the simple task of finding a model for sustainable and sensible electric vehicle. This went so well that, even at this early stage, we have already sold the service to Switzerland, which has one of the fastest developing electric vehicle markets. We have also signed a contract with a large German operator. The project has been a huge success!'
Overwhelming energy efficiency
So why is the spread of electric vehicles so important? The answer is simple: in terms of energy efficiency, an electric motor is far better than one powered by fuel.
'The efficiency of an electric car is about 90%, compared to a maximum of 20% for a car running on a fuel engine. Switching to electric cars is the most effective way to reduce the use of fossil fuels,' emphasises Matti Lehtonen.
The environment benefits and it's also easier on the wallet. Although buying an electric car or a hybrid is more expensive than a regular car, lower operating costs make it a more reasonable option over the life cycle.
At this time, Finland has 348 public charging stations. The interim goal is to fulfil the commitment of 4 000 stations by 2020, as required by the European Commission. Is using an electric car to make a trip to the cottage still a dream?
'Fully electric cars are mainly intended for city driving, but a hybrid can be used for longer trips to, for example, Rovaniemi,' promises Jussi Palola.
'In fact, a rechargeable hybrid can take you farther than a fuel engine car and this is the key factor in terms of making electric vehicles more common,' says Palola, who has been driving a hybrid for the last four years.
Professor Matti Lehtonen
Tel. +358 50 411 4579
CEO Jussi Palola
Tel. +358 50 434 0132