Former SAP (SAP) top exec Shai Agassi unveiled his new venture last night in the pixels of the online editions of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times: A startup backed by $200 million that will lease removable batteries for electric cars. The company will also build a network of battery-charging stations and battery replacement centers. It appears that Agassi’s company, called Project Better Place, won’t spend its considerable cash hoard on developing new battery technology or electric cars themselves. Instead, according to the articles’ somewhat differing takes, Agassi seeks to extend the range of existing electric car batteries by making it easy to charge up or swap power packs on the road. The company would make money by renting batteries to car owners and charging them to charge up.
"The business model for the electric cars will be similar to that used by mobile phone operators," the company says on its site. "In the same way that wireless operators deploy a network of cell towers to provide an area of mobile phone coverage, Project Better Place will establish a network of charging spots and battery exchange stations to provide ubiquitous access to electricity to power electric vehicles. The company will partner with car makers and source batteries so that consumers who subscribe to the network can get subsidized vehicles which are cheaper to buy and operate than today’s fuel-based cars. Consumers will still own their cars and will have multiple car models to choose from."
Among the big names backing Agassi are Israeli holding company Israel Corp, Morgan Stanley (MS), Tesla investor VantagePoint Venture
Partners, former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn and Edgar Bronfman, Sr.
Battery leasing is an idea that’s gaining currency among electric car companies. Batteries typically account for half the cost of an electric vehicle,
requiring that buyers essentially prepay upfront for years of fuel cost. Norwegian EV maker Think, for instance, plans to sell its City urban runabout and charge a monthly "mobility" fee that will include the battery lease as well as other features like insurance. General Motors (GM) is exploring a similar idea for its Volt electric hybrid under development. Utilities like PG&E (PCG), meanwhile, have expressed interest in buying tens of thousands of used EV batteries to store renewable energy produced by solar arrays and wind farms for use when power demand peaks. Such a secondary market for electric car batteries potentially makes leasing schemes viable.
Agassi will face competition from Capricorn Investment Group, a Palo Alto private equity firm that also intends to launch a battery-leasing company to jump-start the EV market. Capricorn has invested in both Think and Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley startup that is building the Roadster supercar.
The risk Agassi faces is that companies like Tesla, which itself has raised more than $100 million, will develop long-range electric car batteries that make a network of charging stations and battery replacement stations superfluous. Tesla, for example, says its latest tests show the Roadster will go 245 miles between charges in combined city and highway driving. Still, it’ll be some time before an electric car goes 400 miles on a charge and Agassi has $200 million to play with. A few months ago, Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard spoke to Green Wombat about the potential for EV battery leasing. "I would love to see that work," he said. "It may work for us down the road. I think it’s a great idea."