Better Place's Battery Exchange Charges Ahead

Flawless Demo Supports Founder's Mission-Driven Vision


  • Shai Agassi and Nissim Ben-Shetrit

    Shai Agassi and Nissim Ben-Shetrit

    Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place (BP), greets Nissim Ben-Shetrit, Israeli ambassador to Japan, before the opening ceremony. | March 18, 2010

5 Photos

Adapted from the original article on Green Car Advisor.

Better Place strutted its stuff recently in Yokohama, Japan, and it was a production well worth watching. The would-be leader of the nascent electric-vehicle charging industry trotted out its battery-switching technology at a demonstration project in downtown Yokohama. Better Place (BP) demonstrated that, with a national network of battery exchange stations and vehicles designed to properly interface, EV ownership wouldn't have to be subjected to any significant limitations.

The battery exchange station — the first in the world to be shown to the public — ought to come with a fork, so those who've said that lengthy recharging times will always constrain battery-electric vehicles' usefulness can eat their words.

An End to Range Anxiety
In BP's better world, a depleted battery could be swapped for a freshly charged one in less time than it takes to pump 10 gallons of gasoline into the family sedan. At the demonstration station in this bustling port city just south of Tokyo, a battery exchange was deliberately slowed down so those in the audience could follow it step-by-step. Even so, the exchange took just under 90 seconds.

If this kind of station were readily available, a cross-country trip in a battery-electric car wouldn't have to be interrupted every 200 miles or so to complete 4-6-hour battery charging sessions.

BP's founder and chief executive, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Shai Agassi, boasted that the engineering mule at the company's R&D center in Israel can do the job in as little as 40 seconds. That would get most of us into the station and back out with a fresh load of electrons in about a tenth of the time it takes to gas up a car with an internal combustion engine.

Obstacles Remain
BP's idea is that motorists should be able to lease charged batteries as well as battery charging time, so that buying an electric vehicle doesn't require them to also purchase a battery pack that could cost as much as the car. It's a brilliant idea, modeled on the cell phone industry.

Like cell phone buyers who buy minutes of air time in prepaid packages tailored to fit their individual needs, BP customers would buy a car and then purchase miles, in the form of kilowatt-hours of energy, stored in battery packs that BP would supply. A customer could purchase monthly mileage packages that range from a few kilowatt-hours of energy to an unlimited amount. The packages would include battery charging and exchange privileges. The monthly fees, Agassi insists, would be no more than (and likely less than) the cost of buying gasoline to travel the same number of miles.

Creating a network of battery exchange stations would be expensive. Agassi figures that it would take $500,000 to build and stock one station, and that cities such as Los Angeles and Tokyo would need about 100 locations. Major routes between cities, he said, would need a station every 30 miles.

But new gasoline stations can easily cost $1 million or more, which makes BP's electron depots sound like bargains — especially as Agassi insists his company will be able to finance construction of the networks. He's already raised more than $200 million for the fledgling parent company and says that each regional BP subsidiary (there is a separate company for each country in which BP does business) is charged with raising the capital needed to complete its own network.

In Denmark, for example, where BP has an agreement to install a charging and exchange station network beginning in 2012, BP Denmark has secured $133 million in financing. The company's Israeli subsidiary, which is scheduled to launch its network in 2011, is now trying to raise $150 million, Agassi said.

Two to Tango
So far, only France's Renault and its Japanese partner, Nissan Motor Co., have signed on as automakers for BP's plan. That puts them ahead of the competition. Their participation might drive others to begin designing BP-compliant EVs, although the word right now is that other automakers see little profit in doing so.

Meantime, as Wednesday's demonstration made clear, BP is moving forward as rapidly as possible. The company has been buoyed by more than $300 million in capital. Its approach is supported by Renault-Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, one of the auto industry's most visionary executives. There is a growing sense of urgency on the part of governments worldwide that automakers must move to electric propulsion systems. And many of those governments are increasingly willing to offer financial incentives to speed electrification.

Sweet Spot
Agassi said he believes BP is in the best place to start. It offers governments and automakers a system that can help slash CO2 emissions (if the electricity used to charge the batteries comes from renewable resources rather than coal-fired power plants), improve sustainability in the auto industry and help reduce the consumption of petroleum-based fuels.

Automakers, he believes, will benefit because the BP leasing system will help to make EVs profitable by eliminating the need to add the cost of batteries to vehicle prices. That would reduce retail prices and, arguably, make the vehicles more attractive to consumers.

Consumers will benefit, he says, because automakers that build BP-compatible electric vehicles won't have to charge tens of thousands of dollars for batteries. BP's business plan calls for it to purchase, stock and maintain thousands of battery packs for its global network of battery exchange stations.

BP sounded like a pipe dream when it was first pitched a few years ago. And it is still a long way from a sure bet. But Agassi's dream of a "mission-driven" business that can help to improve the environment while making a profit seems to be gaining traction.

The company has deals in Israel and Denmark to provide each country with more than 100,000 EV charging stations and 100 or more battery exchange stations. The battery-exchange stations would service a Renault-Nissan Alliance electric car that will be marketed starting in 2011. (The car, a five-passenger sedan, is being designed by Renault, and will be a different vehicle from the EV that Nissan has said it will launch in the U.S. and Japan next year and globally by 2012.)

In addition, there's the Yokohama demonstration project, which likely will lead to an invitation from the Japanese government to become the rare foreign company allowed — even encouraged — to market its wares domestically. BP also has EV charging and exchange station demonstration or development agreements in the Canadian province of Ontario and the state of Victoria in Australia. It also has agreements in Hawaii and a five-city consortium in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Doubters will doubt, but with the successful showing of BP's prototype battery exchange system, Agassi is marching ahead, secure in his belief that EVs need a charging infrastructure to be successful — and that if he builds it, they will come.

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