Full speed ahead for firm pushing electric vehicles


POSTED: Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Better Place of Palo Alto, Calif., the company with an ambitious $1 billion plan to launch a mass-market electric vehicle system in Hawaii, is feeling optimistic these days.

Besides the passage of key bills by the state Legislature and the governor's support, Better Place unveiled yesterday its first demonstration model of an electric car charging spot and battery-swapping station, in Yokohama, Japan.

“;I'm excited about what this means for Hawaii,”; said Pete Cooper, of Better Place Hawaii. “;This technology moves us closer to realizing the environmental and economic benefits of electrical vehicles : clean transportation using our state's natural, renewable sources of energy instead of imported fossil fuels.”;

As envisioned, Hawaii would be home to at least 3,000 electric cars in 2010 and 50,400 in 2015. By then the isles also would be outfitted with a network of up to 100,000 charging stations powered by renewable energy sources.

These charging stations could be in homes, parking garages and shopping centers, along a curbside or wall without taking up a lot of room. Battery-swapping stations, like the one in Yokohama, would require more real estate and ideally be near a gas station.

The time it takes to switch a battery will take no longer than the time it takes to fill a tank of gas, according to Better Place, and people could stay in their cars.

The goal, according to Cooper, is to make driving an electric vehicle affordable and convenient, with plenty of places to recharge. With a single charge, an electric car typically can go up to 100 miles, and with a battery swap, another 100 miles.

Better Place would own and provide the batteries. Customers would pay for a subscription to charge up their cars the same way they pay to use a cell phone, but by the mile instead of by the minute.

Hawaii is the ideal “;transportation island”; for the project.

“;You can't drive any further than the edge of the island,”; said Cooper. “;Hawaii has a tremendous amount of renewable energy. It's substantial and that's thrilling for us.”;

Cooper spent the past few months speaking with potential partners for Better Place's Vision Partner Program. He said businesses, which he could not name, have shown enthusiasm for the project.

“;I think people want to get out front,”; said Cooper. “;Vision Partners want to be visionary, and they want to be the first.”;

Infrastructure for the program is shaping up, thanks to the Legislature's support of two bills this session.

Senate Bill 1202 requires public parking garages with 100 spaces or more to set aside 1 percent of their space for electric vehicles by the end of 2011. Another bill, House Bill 1483, authorizes up to $45 million in special-purpose-revenue bonds for Better Place's network.

Right now, however, only just a few residents in Hawaii actually own a full-size electric vehicle. But, Cooper says, the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association has been supportive.

Besides Yokohama, Better Place is working on networks in Israel, Denmark, Australia and Canada as well as the San Francisco Bay Area.

Better Place, founded by software entrepreneur Shai Agassi in 2007, has about $200 million in funding secured from Morgan Stanley, Vantage Point Venture Partners and Israel Corp. Cooper says the company is also vying for funds from President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, which would need to be matched by private investors.




The Better Place long-range plan

        » Goal: To create a network of up to 100,000 battery-charging stations for electric cars, plus battery-swapping stations throughout Hawaii by 2015

» Cost: $1 billion


Bills passed by the legislature

        » Senate Bill 1202: All public, private and government parking facilities with at least 100 parking spaces shall set aside 1 percent exclusively for electric vehicles by Dec. 31, 2011. When registered electric cars in Hawaii reach 5,000, requirement goes up to 2 percent.

» House Bill 1483: Authorizes special-purpose revenue bonds of up to $45 million to assist Better Place Hawaii Inc.