Technology Newsmaker Q&A: Teitur Torkelsson

Jan. 1, 2020
Teitur Torkelson is the founder and managing partner of FTO Sustainable Solutions.

FTO Sustainable Solutions founder speaks out.

Teitur Torkelson

Teitur Torkelsson, founder and managing partner of FTO Sustainable Solutions

What do you expect to be the main issues under discussion at the Sept. 13-14 Driving Sustainability international conference in Iceland?

The near-term potential of electricity and biofuels for powering cars, trucks and buses along with the right policies and co-operation of different players to implement this system change in an urban setting is how I would describe the focus this year. We will be using a lot of examples of technologies and policies that are working well in the Nordic countries and many of our participants will be from this region, but also from the USA, Japan and Europe. Right now, biogas is a big untapped resource as a transportation fuel, as it is being produced economically from sewage and landfills, and the cars and buses are already running and saving their owners money. Such biogas production is a great way to make cities and communities more sustainable. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids and EVs are fast becoming a money saving option, especially if accompanied with financial incentives from governments and business models that spread the extra cost of the still expensive batteries over the lifetime of the vehicle.

How does this event differ from other automotive industry conferences and trade shows?

Driving Sustainability is not only about clean cars or clean fuels, but more about integrating all the factors needed for system change and tangible steps towards sustainable mobility. It's about showing the way forward. Technology is only one piece of the puzzle. We add the sharing of policy ideas for companies, municipal and state leadership, urban planning and behavioral change with a good deal of inspiration. At this event you personally experience the production of clean power for transport through short field trips, get to hear about the latest trends in the increased use of biogas and electricity, test drive new vehicles and participate in creating new solutions. It's a multi-industry meeting point with a lot of different people with entrepreneurial, technical, academic, industrial and political backgrounds. Implementation of sustainable mobility solutions requires that all these sectors work together and that some action is taken. We have talking heads, but also serious networking and real steps forward.

How important is the Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle testing program to Iceland's goal of reducing its purchases of imported fuel?

The MiEV testing formally starting in the fall of 2009 will quite quickly determine the actual range, cost-savings and feasibility of electric cars becoming, let's say, 50 percent of the country's fleet by 2020. The general public here seems to be very eager for this change, but it's all about the money in the end. The weather here is very unstable, temperatures jump up and down, winters can be long, cold and dark and the law requires cars to be driven with their headlights on 24/7. So I can promise a very real life testing of these cars in tough conditions. Electrification of the transport sector is a huge opportunity for Iceland with all its clean energy resources. Just imagine what it would mean for America if 50 percent of its imported oil would be replaced with domestic renewable energy within a decade. It's a revolution in terms of energy security, economic savings and environmental stewardship. The next ten years will also see a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency of internal combustion engine cars. There are three steps left for Iceland to become the first 100 percent sustainable energy society in the world: Ships, planes and automobiles. The MiEV testing and to find the right financial incentives for EVs is an important part of the first step.

Do you think Iceland's motoring public will readily accept electric vehicles?

Various informal polls have shown the public to be eager for change. Icelanders like new technology and an integral part of the national psyche is Iceland's clean energy, clean water and clean air, not to mention independence. Always when coming from abroad we look forward to our first sip of the best drinking water in the world running from our taps, and jumping in our geothermal outdoor pools to breathe the fresh air of the North Atlantic. I think most Icelanders would be ready to pay a little extra for a good electric car, especially as a city car and the second car of the family. Most Icelanders will also want to have a 4X4 – or at least access to one – for snowy winters and to be able to bring the whole family traveling in the countryside and the highlands and safely cross rivers up there. Cars are about freedom. EVs have the potential to give us freedom from oil addiction and environmental guilt. SUVs will continue to give us freedom to ride into the sunset. If you ask me, one EV city car and one plug-in SUV: That's the dream wheels of the Icelandic household by 2020.

How crucial might the Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle test be to Iceland's economy?

The conclusions from testing a handful of vehicles give us a realistic base to calculate savings. We have programmers already creating the software to help fleet managers and government to determine if transforming the fleet to EVs or domestic biogas cars is economically feasible based on a lifetime cost analysis. This will also be an important tool for policymakers to calculate what kind of financial incentives are needed and for how long, and where that money should come from, be it increased carbon tax or other means.

What infrastructural adjustments must be made to accommodate the i-MiEV?

I hear from the electric utilities here that most homes are ready to plug in and that the distribution system can easily take the increased burden. All power lines in urban areas are underground and the distribution system is very safe and efficient. Mitsubishi has said that they expect 70-80 percent of charging to take place at home and at work through normal household sockets just like with cell phones (in Iceland we use 220 volts, and 16 amperes fuses are easily accessible). This means that in the early stages, for at least the next three years or so, there is only a miniscule need for any additional infrastructure. The first electric cars will no doubt be more expensive than their traditional counterparts, and their buyers will be early adapters and fleet users that can set up their own charging at their own cost. There are only ten or so sidewalk chargers in Reykjavík today, and I don't think we need a city- or nationwide network of special charging points any time soon.

Do you have an estimated cost for the program, and who will cover the expenses for this?

Expenses for additional infrastructure are not an issue to begin with. The main issue is the additional cost of the electric vehicle until battery prices go down significantly with more mass production. This can be addressed through financial incentives such as subsidies for buyers of electric cars financed with carbon tax for example. New business models with utilities or dealers sharing the initial capital cost of the battery by leasing it out, or getting people to sign up for a plan for paid miles instead of mobile phone minutes, will also play a role in this. The business plan of Better Place is an example. Finally, the buyers of the cars will themselves naturally have to cover a part of the added cost. This has been the case with new technologies before. Early buyers of mobile phones were few, but they paid a hefty amount for a heavy gadget with 30 minutes talk time. Early buyers of electric cars will pay more and get less than EV buyers in 2020, but they get to be first and many people are ready to pay a lot for that. iPhone is a perfect example from the last two years. Call it vanity, but we all know that vanity is a part of reality.

Bio

Having traveled to some 60 countries, including the United States, Teitur Torkelsson of Iceland jovially volunteers that numerous Americans ask him about Tater Tots upon hearing the pronunciation of his first name: No, he has not tried one yet. As a founder of FTO Sustainable Solutions in 2006, the organization was established to participate in the business opportunities presented by an ongoing economic, social and technological transformation of the world. The firm plans to cover the whole spectrum of sustainability, but is focusing initially on transportation. The company's annual Driving Sustainability conference is a global platform for sustainable transport solutions. FTO was instrumental in introducing the first plug-in hybrid in Iceland as well as the first ethanol cars and ethanol fuel imported to the country in relation with the first Driving Sustainability conference in 2007. At the 2008 conference, an agreement was signed between the Icelandic government and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on fleet testing of the electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV in Iceland and the development of a service network and infrastructure for such cars. The conference was a great success and received extensive press coverage in Iceland and several other countries including a special coverage on Sky News and in the New York Times. Torkelsson is currently FTO's managing partner.

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