Devil’s Advocates Question Better Place

By · December 03, 2008

Electric car fans cheered this week’s announcement that Better Place, a startup based in Palo Alto, Calif., signed up the State of Hawaii to build a statewide recharging infrastructure for plug-in vehicles. But critics and some sympathetic supporters playing the role of Devil’s Advocates are asking tough questions.

Better Place and the Hawaii Electric Company plan to implement a vast network of charging stations for all-electric cars. Each charging station will take the shape of a triangular pole one meter high with a covered socket in the upper part. Better Place will then begin introducing limited numbers of Nissan electric vehicles throughout the state in mid-2010 to make use of the new plug-in vehicle recharging network. According to the plan, production of electric vehicles will be ramped up to mass-market availability by late 2012.

In November, the City of San Francisco invited Better Place to assist in developing a similar electric recharging network. The system will cost about $1 billion and utilize up to a half a million recharge outposts throughout the Bay Area. Completion of the project is estimated for 2012. Better Place has similar arrangements for Israel, Denmark, Sonoma County (Calif.) and other locations.

“Yeah, But” Say Some Critics

While most coverage of the Hawaii Better Place announcement simply reprinted the press release, a number of media outlets questioned the details of the ambitious plan. Shouldn’t even the most ardent fans of plug-in vehicles pause to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead?

The New York Times

"The scenario is complicated by several factors, including that mass production of high-performance, affordable battery packs appears to be years away.

"Better Place imagines a fully automated station that would carry all manufactured batteries 'so that any electric vehicle with a swappable battery, regardless of make or model, can pull in and be serviced.' But a jumble of battery types from various automakers, without industry-wide standardization, could obviously turn such a plan into a nightmare."

The Register (UK)

"Shai Agassi [the founder of Better Place] even talks of subsidizing cars. But at the moment, this seems little more than talk. Speaking with The Register, he said Better Place will spring for your car's battery — 'in essence.' A significant expense, to be sure. But it's unclear exactly how this will work.

"Presumably, Hawaii has agreed to grease permitting for the Better Place network —and provide tax breaks for 'leccy-car owners. But it appears the specifics have yet to be ironed out. Calls to multiple Hawaiian officials went unanswered."

Greentechmedia

"One thing that sort of got buried in the announcement that Better Place will build charging stations for electric cars in Hawaii is that, well, they will function like gas stations for the next few years.

"Hawaii gets 85 percent of its energy from oil…As a result, when people plug-in their hybrids or go to one of Better Place’s charging stations on the island, they are filling up on electrons that were created by burning oil…By 2030, Hawaii wants to get 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources: wave power, wind farms, solar thermal plants and photovoltaic panels…That’s going to take some time, and Better Place is talking about getting permits for stations in the next year. As a result, those cars will likely be indirectly gas powered for a while."

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