Posts Tagged ‘Better Place’

photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

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photo: Todd Woody

In a story I wrote with Clifford Krauss in Monday’s New York Times, I look at how the San Francisco Bay Area has is scrambling to prepare for the arrival of mass-market electric cars later this year:

SAN FRANCISCO — If electric cars have any future in the United States, this may be the city where they arrive first.

The San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.

In nearby Silicon Valley, companies are ordering workplace charging stations in the belief that their employees will be first in line when electric cars begin arriving in showrooms. And at the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are preparing “heat maps” of neighborhoods that they fear may overload the power grid in their exuberance for electric cars.

“There is a huge momentum here,” said Andrew Tang, an executive at P.G.& E.

As automakers prepare to introduce the first mass-market electric cars late this year, it is increasingly evident that the cars will get their most serious tryout in just a handful of places. In cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, a combination of green consciousness and enthusiasm for new technology seems to be stirring public interest in the cars.

The first wave of electric car buying is expected to begin around December, when Nissan introduces the Leaf, a five-passenger electric car that will have a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery and be priced for middle-class families.

Several thousand Leafs made in Japan will be delivered to metropolitan areas in California, Arizona, Washington state, Oregon and Tennessee. Around the same time, General Motors will introduce the Chevrolet Volt, a vehicle able to go 40 miles on electricity before its small gasoline engine kicks in.

“This is the game-changer for our industry,” said Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s president and chief executive. He predicted that 10 percent of the cars sold would be electric vehicles by 2020.

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The ability to fast-charge electric cars is seen as key to the adoption of battery-powered vehicles. But as I wrote in The New York Times on Thursday, utilities are worried such devices will overload the grid:

Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, announced a deal this week with a California company, AeroVironment, a maker of electric vehicle charging stations, to introduce fast-charging stations that can charge its battery-powered City car to 80 percent capacity in as little as 15 minutes.

A conventional charger can take eight or more hours to charge an electric car, depending on the battery.

“The development and deployment of very-fast-charge stations will help speed the electrification of automobiles in the United States and globally,” Richard Canny, Think’s chief executive, said in a statement.

But utilities — concerned that fast-chargers could overload the electricity grid — are more cautious.

Think and AeroVironment did not reveal the voltage of their fast-charger but such devices — known in the industry as “Level 3” chargers — generally average around 440 volts. Most household appliances run on 110 volts.

“It is premature to evaluate the feasibility or safety of Level 3 fast-charging equipment,” wrote Christopher Warner, a lawyer for the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, in a brief filed with the California Public Utilities Commission in October. “Such charging may require large investments in infrastructure and load management constraints in order to prevent ‘mini-peaks’ and localized impacts on grid reliability.”

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photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Friday, I wrote about the latest developments in California’s efforts to write the rules of the road for an electric car infrastructure:

California officials have indicated they are not inclined to regulate electric car infrastructure companies that plan to sell electricity to drivers through networks of charging stations.

Whether to treat such companies as quasi-utilities has been a contentious issue. The state’s three big utilities have split on the topic, while battery charging start-ups like Better Place and Coulomb Technologies have warned that regulation could stifle innovation and scare off investors.

Now the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael R. Peevey, has signaled he is siding with the companies as the commission moves to put electric car regulations in place.

“Facilities that are solely used to provide electricity as a transportation fuel do not constitute ‘electric plant,’” wrote Mr. Peevey in a recent ruling. “As such, the commission would not have regulatory authority regarding the price that an electric vehicle charging facility operator charges for charging services or other aspects of the operation of such facilities.”

That is not likely to be the final word on the subject. Mr. Peevey, who is overseeing the electric car rule-making process, invited utilities, automakers and charging station companies to file briefs on his proposed interpretation of the law.

With several mass-market electric cars set to hit showrooms by the end of the year, the utilities commission is moving unusually swiftly to resolve a variety of outstanding issues. In his ruling, Mr. Peevey set an April deadline to issue a preliminary decision on the most of them.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

With electric cars months away from hitting the road, the California Public Utilities Commission has begun the complex task of establishing a regulatory framework for the state’s emerging electric vehicle infrastructure. The biggest fight is likely to be over whether to regulate companies like Better Place, which plans to build an electric car charging network in the state. As I write in The New York Times on Monday:

With electric cars set to hit the mass market next year, a skirmish is breaking out in California over who will control the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure.

The California Public Utilities Commission will write the rules of the electric road and is just starting to grapple with the complex regulatory issues surrounding the integration of battery-powered cars into the state’s electrical grid.

One of the biggest questions is whether to regulate Better Place, Coulomb Technologies and other companies that plan to sell electricity to drivers through a network of battery charging stations.

California’s three big investor-owned utilities have split over the issue.

“The commission should establish its authority to regulate third-party providers of electricity for electric vehicles,” Christopher Warner, an attorney for Pacific Gas & Electric, wrote in a filing with the utilities commission. “Managing the increased electricity consumption and load attributable to electric vehicles in order to avoid adverse impacts on the safety and reliability of the electric grid may be one of the most difficult management challenges that electric utilities will face.”

Southern California Edison, meanwhile, urged the commission to move cautiously, calibrating any regulation to the specific business models of the companies.

San Diego Gas & Electric said the commission does not have the right to regulate companies like Better Place.

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switch station location

photo: Better Place

In today’s New York Times, I write about Better Place’s unveiling of its software platform for managing tens of thousands of electric cars on the road and the grid. Software as much as hardware will be key to making electric cars a mass market phenomenon:

Electric cars may be all about hardware – batteries, drivetrains, charging stations — but companies like Better Place are depending on software to give a niche product mass-market appeal.

At the Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday, Better Place, which builds electric vehicle charging networks, is expected to take the wraps off a software platform that tells drivers when and where to charge their batteries, while giving utilities the ability to manage the impact of tens of thousands of vehicles tapping into the power grid.

The company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has signed deals to roll out networks of charging spots and battery switching stations in Australia, Denmark, California, Canada and Hawaii and Israel.

Better Place will own the car batteries and drivers will buy “miles” (or kilometers) on a subscription plan much like they purchase mobile phone minutes. That means Better Place must track the location and capacity of thousands of batteries at any given moment to properly bill customers and ensure that fresh batteries and charging posts are available when needed.

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photo: Better Place

Electric cars, eh?

Silicon Valley startup Better Place on Thursday unveiled a deal with the government of Ontario – the Michigan of Canada – to build an electric car charging network in the automaking province. The announcement comes on the heels of agreements Better Place — the electric car infrastructure company founded by former software executive Shai Agassi — has made with governments in Australia, California, Denmark, Hawaii, Israel and Japan.  Better Place is working with the Canadian arm of Sydney-based infrastructure finance giant Macquarie to develop the Ontario electric car network.

“We need to be where the puck is going and in this case bring the puck to Ontario,” said Ontario minister of international trade Pupatello at a press conference in Toronto Thursday morning.

The Canadian deal comes amid turmoil in the nascent electric car industry. While EV companies like Think and Tesla struggle to survive the credit crisis, the big automakers – Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC) and Chrysler – have announced they’re accelerating plans to build electric cars and, in GM’s case, a battery-making factory.

On Thursday, the premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, said his government will conduct a study on how to expedite the introduction of electric cars in the province. When the study is released in May, Better Place will detail its plan and investment timeline for building the network of charging posts and battery-swapping stations.

Better Place, said McGuinty,  “is a model with the power to reshape our province. It’s going to create new green jobs, it’s going to make life more convenient for car drivers of the future and it’s going to signal to the world that Ontario is electric-car friendly and will make it a more attractive place to build electric cars.”

Agassi has now committed to raising billions in capital to simultaneously build charging networks in five far-flung countries over the next three years. When Green Wombat talked to Agassi in November after he signed a deal to build a $1 billion San Francisco Bay Area charging network, he insisted the financial crisis would not hamper efforts to raise funding.

Under Better Place’s system, consumers will buy the electric cars while Better Place will own the batteries, charging subscribers to its network a fee per-mile (or kilometer) driven. Renault-Nissan is supplying electric cars for Better Place’s other networks. An electric Nissan SUV – emblazoned with little wind turbines – was parked at the press conference but company spokeswoman Julie Mullins said an electric car supplier had not yet been selected for Ontario. “Ultimately, we expect a wide range of vehicle makes and models to be available to drivers,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We are currently in talks with several car companies.”

Ontario-based Bullfrog Power will provide renewable energy – 80% hydro, 20% wind – for the Better Place network. “We’re going to create a virtual oil field across the province,” said Agassi.

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photo: Better Place

Silicon Valley startup Better Place on Tuesday announced a deal with Hawaii’s governor and the state’s biggest utility to build an electric car charging network throughout the islands.

The agreement comes less than two weeks after Better Place CEO Shai Agassi and the mayors of Northern California’s three largest cities unveiled a plan to build an electric car infrastructure for the San Francisco Bay Area. Better Place also has signed similar deals with governments in Australia, Denmark and Israel.

Agassi said the network of charging posts and battery swapping stations will be ready by 2012. That’s roughly the target date for Better Place’s other projects, which means the year-old startup will be simultaneously building electric car networks in four countries while raising billions of dollars in project finance.

Renault-Nissan will supply electric cars for the network. Better Place will own the car batteries and charge drivers for the miles (or kilometers) driven. By removing the battery from the purchase price of electric cars – the most expensive component – Better Place hopes to sell vehicles at prices competitive with their fossil-fueled counterparts.

Appearing with Agassi at a press conference at the capitol in Honolulu, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle said the Better Place partnership offers the state the opportunity to slash the $7 billion it spends annually on imported oil and provide a market for renewable energy. Hawaiians pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the U.S. and the state has set a goal of obtaining 70% of its energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030.

“It’s not a simple goal – we’re looking to end our dependence on oil,” said Agassi, who shed his customary dark suit for a gray polo shirt and wore a lei. “Any form of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal – is here in Hawaii.”

“This will be the blueprint where six or seven million visitors will come and experience first-hand what it’s like to drive an electric car,” added Agassi, 40, a former top executive at business software giant SAP. “You couldn’t ask for a better advertisement.”

Utility Hawaiian Electric (HE), which supplies 95% of the state’s power, will generate renewable electricity equal to what the Better Place network consumes and work with the company on developing the charging infrastructure.

“The price of oil is irrelevant to us – we have to reach a clean and secure energy future,” Lingle said.

Better Place’s latest deal came on the same day that General Motors (GM) and Ford, which have asked for a multi billion-dollar bailout from Congress, (F) announced plans ramp up production of hybrid and electric cars.

“It’s a win-win-win – the only loser in the equation is oil and that’s ok,” said Hawaiian Electric executive vice president Robbie Alm. “Green cars will provide the market for renewable energy.”

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betterplaceplugElectric cars are as good for the economy as the environment and could put $80 billion in consumers’ pockets by 2030, according to a new study from the University of California.

Not surprisingly, the oil industry would take a $175 billion hit under the scenario sketched by UC Berkeley’s Global Venture Lab, while a booming battery business would gain $130 billion as the internal combustion engine sputters out. “There will also be significant changes in the balance of payments among nations as petroleum imports decline,” the authors wrote. “We find the net imports of the U.S. will decline by $20 billion.”

The report makes several assumptions to arrive at its optimistic conclusions: The Cal researchers are counting on 39% of cars on the road to be electric by 2030 and powered by electricity generated from renewable sources like wind and solar.

Electric car owners would save an estimated $7,203 in operating costs, mainly because with no engines to maintain, battery-powered vehicles rarely see the inside of mechanic’s garage.

Left unexplored in the report was the impact of electric cars on the United States auto industry. If General Motors (GM), Ford (F) and Chrysler survive – and that’s a big if these days – they stand to benefit assuming they retool for the electric age and produce cars consumers want to buy before rivals like Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC) and Renault-Nissan beat them to the punch. But their dealer networks are sure to suffer once their lucrative repair and maintenance business evaporates.

Another winner in the electric car economy will be solar and wind companies and utilities, particularly those like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) that are making multi billion-dollar investments in renewable energy.

One of the biggest assumption the Cal report makes involves the rise of a U.S. battery industry. “We don’t have a battery industry today,” said Shai Agassi, CEO of electric car infrastructure startup Better Place, on Friday at a panel Green Wombat moderated for the University of California’s Global Technology Leaders Conference. “Either we make them here or they’re going to be made in China.”

Agassi and the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland on Friday announced that Better Place would build a $1 billion network of charging stations throughout the Bay Area. Renault-Nissan has agreen to provide Better Place with the hundreds of thousands of electric cars it’ll need to put on the road make its business model profitable.

photo: Better Place

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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.

better20place202The 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.”

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