Photo: Better Place/Acey Harper
SAN FRANCISCO – It was a day when the shift from the past to the future was almost palpable.
It started Thursday morning in Berkeley where Green Wombat was moderating a panel of tech luminaries gathered at the University of California’s Global Technology Leaders Conference. As Shai Agassi, founder of electric car infrastructure company Better Place, makes the case for harnessing Silicon Valley’s technological innovation to Detroit’s manufacturing might to create a sustainable car industry, dispatches from the automotive apocalypse roll down my BlackBerry: Ford (F) shares sink to $1.01…GM’s (GM) stock falls to its lowest level since World War II…U.S. automakers beg for a bailout…California Congressman Henry Waxman ousts Michigan’s John Dingell — the Duke of Detroit — from his 28-year chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Agassi slips out of the conference and an hour later I catch up with him across the Bay at San Francisco City Hall where he and representatives of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland announce a $1 billion project to build a regional network of electric car charging stations. Better Place has signed similar deals with governments in Israel, Denmark and Australia, but California is the company’s first foray into the U.S. market. Planning for the Bay Area network begins in 2009 with construction scheduled to start in 2010 and commercial rollout set for 2012.
The mood is ebullient. “This is the start of a regional effort to become the capital of electric vehicles in the United States,” proclaims San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom before an audience that includes representatives from state and federal environmental agencies, green groups. Silicon Valley business leaders and officials from GM and Toyota (TM).
For his part, Agassi says, ” We believe this is not just a model for California, but a blueprint for the United States.”
The blueprint works like this: The mayors of the Bay Area’s three largest cities agreed to expedite permitting and installation of electric car charging stations, standardize regional regulations to promote an electric car infrastructure and offer incentives to employers to install chargers at workplaces. The mayors also agreed to pool purchases of municipal electric car fleets.
Better Place will raise the capital to install thousands of charging spots on the streets of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland as well as stations between California cities where drivers can swap depleted batteries for fresh ones when they make longer trips. The Palo Alto-based company will own the car batteries and charge drivers for the miles driven. Automaker Renault-Nissan is developing electric cars for the Better Place network.
The big idea: Only by building an electric car infrastructure first will automakers produce the tens of millions of electric cars needed to make a significant dent in greenhouse gas emissions and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
That business model elicited some skepticism earlier in the day at the Berkeley conference, where Michael Marks, former CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors, questioned Agassi’s claim that Better Place would be able to provide electric cars that cost no more than gasoline-powered vehicles. And Jim Davidson, co-founder of Silicon Valley private equity firm Silver Lake, asked if Better Place would essentially be tapping the power grid to create a monopoly. (No, Agassi said, the Better Place network would be open to all electric cars.)
When Green Wombat sat down with Agassi and Newsom in the mayor’s offices Thursday afternoon, I asked Agassi, who brings a charismatic messianism to his mission, how Better Place would raise the billions needed to roll out an electric car infrastructure in California amid a global economic meltdown. He noted that in Australia Better Place signed up investment giant Macquarie Bank to create an infrastructure fund to finance that project while in Denmark a utility will provide financing.
“We will do the same thing here; we’re working with Morgan Stanley (MS) and Goldman Sachs (GS),” Agassi says, recounting a conversation he recently had with investors who he said were eager to put money in Better Place projects.
If anything, Newsom, 41, and Agassi, 40, and their allies regard the confluence of the financial crisis, the great Detroit car crash and the consolidation of green power in the incoming Obama administration and Congress as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch a disruptive technology on a global scale and transform the U.S. automotive industry.
“We’re uniquely positioned in that our local representative is Speaker of the House,” notes Newsom, referring to his close political ally, San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who on Thursday sent a message of support for the Better Place initiative. “That can elevate what we’re trying to achieve out here.”
There’s no doubt that Newsom has a knack for game-changing politics. (He launched the gay marriage movement in these offices.) But the nuts and bolts of getting the bureaucracy to fall in line will be a harder challenge, as anyone who has ever tried to get a permit to do a home renovation in San Francisco can tell you. And not all of San Francisco’s collaborations with Silicon Valley tech companies have gone well — witness the collapse of the citywide Wi-Fi initiative Newsom undertook with Google (GOOG).
Agassi hesitated when I asked about plans to extend the Bay Area electric car network to the rest of California, noting that negotiating agreements with the nearly 100 municipalities that make up Greater Los Angeles poses a challenge. “I got a call the other day from the mayor of L.A. asking where are we,” Agassi says. “We hope to eventually make it an electric charging corridor from California to Seattle to Vancouver.”
On Thursday, Agassi and the politicians took pains to paint the Better Place initiative as not a California versus Michigan thing, or new economy versus old. And they just may be right. For in a strange way, by building an electric car infrastructure, California is offering Detroit a rescue package of its own: Supplying the network lays the groundwork for the mass production of electric cars that could be the auto industry’s salvation.
That may be counter to conventional wisdom, but perhaps Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmentalist and advisor to Silicon Valley’s VantagePoint Venture Partners – a Better Place investor – put it best on Thursday at the press event when he upended the East Coast view of the Golden State: “When you come to California, you find people in touch with reality.”