Electromobility and sustainable resources: towards a new circular model

Published by on 10.21.2020 - 12 min

Developing sustainable solutions for cities, rethinking mobility, and coming up with the energy sources of the future: these three objectives form the basis for Groupe Renault’s partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Together, they’re working towards the promotion of what’s known as a circular economy. In this interview, Jean-Philippe Hermine, Director of Strategy and Environmental Planning at Groupe Renault, and Jocelyn Blériot, Executive Officer and Head of International Institutions and Governments at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation offer insight into their approach.

Could you talk to us about the birth of the partnership between Groupe Renault and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation?

Jocelyn Blériot: Groupe Renault was one of the Foundation’s founding partners. Prior to its official launch on September 2nd, 2010, Ellen met with Renault—who she’d historically partnered with on her adventures at sea—to let them know of her intention to retire from sailing. A discussion followed about her next project, which was still in its early stages. Very quickly, Renault was able to see the potential in her foundation, and decided to offer her their support.

Jean-Philippe Hermine: Back then, we were at a point where the whole notion of circular economy was just beginning to emerge, before being largely democratised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Our objective in partnering was to demonstrate together that this model could help create real value, in addition to helping resolve environmental issues.

Photos de Jean-Philippe Hermine et Jocelyn Blériot
Jean-Philippe Hermine et Jocelyn Blériot

How do your respective positions influence each other?

J-P.H: The Foundation has allowed us to be part of a community of leaders and pioneers stepping up to face environmental and economic challenges. We’re looking at all our different mobility projects with help from them. Working with the Foundation allows us to stay in touch with all the major actors involved in the evolution towards a circular economy—including public sector organisations like cities and governments. Their support is essential, because a complete transition cannot be done without the involvement of public, regulatory, and fiscal authorities. We’re talking about global change, here.

J.B: As for us, it’s extremely important for us to know we can count on certain organisations to set examples by putting our ideas in place. With Groupe Renault, we’re able to demonstrate the economic viability—and the profitability—of models like these, which opens the door to discussions with public authorities and major financial players.

Groupe Renault and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been growing side-by-side for the last 10 years. What challenges lie ahead?
J-P.H: The next steps will be very important. They’ll be mainly focused on the management and performance of certain resources involved in the life cycle of electric vehicles. We’re focusing on batteries in particular—on increasing their autonomy, extending their lifetime, and on figuring out how to reuse them. We’re continually working to increase our operational effectiveness, as we’re doing now for example, by converting one of Groupe Renault’s major industrial sites in Flins, France, into a circular economy platform.

J.B: In the long-term, by addressing a major societal issue like the decarbonisation of transport, we’re helping pave the way for some truly transformative possibilities. Decarbonisation is a necessity that’s going to impact strategy across the entire industry. It’s about so much more than just overhauling one single company or sector. We need to address this question in a systemic way that accounts for future urban models, smart cities, their transport networks, their energy sources, and of course, their inhabitants’ quality of life.

What is the key to a circular economy—the one thing without which nothing would work?

J-P.H: I’d say it’s having a whole-picture, systemic vision. You need to be able to seize upon all the opportunities that arise within a product’s given life cycle. For example, on the island of Porto Santo, Portugal, batteries from Renault’s ZOE vehicles store energy that is later restored to the island’s energy grid. This is helping Porto Santo both deal with intermittent electricity issues, as well as slowly weaning it off its dependence on heat generators.
It’s equally important to understand how the overall system works, and to create the conditions for a constant dialogue between each of its players. It’s about skilfully balancing the autonomy of each actor so that everyone can bring their know-how to the table while creating their own added value—all while ensuring that no one hoards that value for themselves to the detriment of the whole system.

J.B: Absolutely. It’s essential to maintain a shared perspective, and to band together to create the economy we want to see. That is, a decarbonised economy that’s much more reasonable in its use of resources than it is today. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that there’s an immediate cost to pay for the negative impact created by economic activity—for example, pollution and the over-exploitation of resources, which obviously also pose a serious threat to us in the long-term. If society remains the principal bearer of these costs, a circular system will be difficult to maintain.

Batteries seem to be one of the drivers of your circular economy work…

J-P.H: Batteries are, in effect, going to take up more and more space in cars as we move towards electrification. While crucial to decarbonisation, the environmental impact created by the production of batteries brings with it its own set of questions.

Batteries help us respond to an issue that’s existed for years in the energy sector: namely, that of storage. But beyond just storing energy—renewable energy, ideally—batteries can also help us redistribute it. This is what we call vehicle-to-grid technology. And ultimately, we’ll be able to recycle these batteries. 

The goal is to help regenerate raw materials and reuse them to make new batteries. Over time, this would help lower their cost while securing supply, which will help minimise the carbon impact produced by mining. This is the model we’re working towards.

J.B: In a way, batteries are the infrastructure of the 21st century. Up until now, vehicles have mainly consumed energy to provide people with mobility services. Now, thanks to batteries, they can act as providers of services (like stationary storage) that are consistent with a multimodal, multi-user system. 

The development of new features around batteries helps us view the concept of circular economy from another angle. We’re moving away from a mindset in which we produce things and then dispose of them, towards one that perpetuates the service the product provides. We’re doing this by rethinking methods of design, conception, and production, in particular, to create short production cycles across a maximum number of elements, to limit the impact of production on the environment.

What do you think future mobility will look like?

J-P. H: We need to challenge the instinctive ideas we have about cars—that is, that they’re for personal, individual use. We need to envision a system in which cars become a shared utility and a service provider. At least, that’s the vision we’re trying to promote. 

This approach will reshape the way we design vehicles: if you’re designing a car for multiple users, you must think about things like durability and modularity in a completely different way.

J.B: Designing future forms of mobility is an ambitious social project in which municipalities can play a strong role. It’s in fact something that’s clearly defined in their agendas for the transport sector. These actors are also going to have to find more multimodal solutions, reclaim public spaces, and manage air pollution, which will also help respond to societal and local needs by bringing in new sources of growth.

Speaking of municipalities, how are you helping support development in cities?

J-P.H: To cite just a few examples, with our different Smart City projects, we’ll be capable of connecting our mobility services to existing ones, which over time will lead to the evolution of our business model towards one centered around vehicle restoration and maintenance. We know for example that in mobility services, the ability to keep vehicles clean and maintained is crucial to keeping the network up and running, which means you’ve got to be doing constant repairs. We’ll also need to come up with a vehicle that’s capable of meeting the needs of thousands of people.

What about you, Jocelyn? What role do you see cities playing in the development of a circular economy?

J.B: Municipal actors are becoming more and more influential in the international political scene. We’ve seen this with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, for example—a group of major cities that are tackling climate change together, even where their national governments have stalled on the issue. As a result, we see how cities are spearheading the transition while acting as experimental sites for what we could consider the model of the future—particularly in terms of enacting circular economy principles around decarbonisation and the reclaiming of public space.

 

Vincent Thobel, L’ADN journalist
L’ADN is the media on innovation that every day analyses the best concepts of the new economy on the web and in magazine format.

 

 

Copyrights: Groupe Renault