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photo: Think

This post first appeared on Grist.

“Honey, could you run down to the store and pick up some milk, tofu and one of those new Think City electric cars?”

That could be a conversation you’ll be hearing soon in Switzerland (in French, German Italian and Romansh, of course) now that Norwegian electric automaker Think has struck a deal with Swiss retailer Migros to market the City.

Sort of a cooperatively owned Costco, Migros is Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain and operates more than 600 stores across the country. In a deal announced Wednesday, Migros will sell the battery-powered Think urban runabout through a new division called M-Way.

“We have the key central retail locations all over Switzerland and beyond, now we want to use these bases to spread the news and sales of electric vehicles such as the Think City,” Herbert Bolliger, President of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives, said in a statement.

The announcement caught my attention because it’s a reminder that, one, not all green tech innovation is destined to happen here in California, and two, business model innovation will be just as important as technology itself in transforming electric cars from a niche to a knockout.

From its reincarnation a few years ago under the leadership of then-chief executive Jan Olaf-Willums, Think sought not to sell so much a car as mobility. Internet-enabled and connected to your mobile phone and the power grid, the plastic-bodied City was designed to plug into the transportation and electric power networks rather than be just another isolated hunk of metal rolling down the road.

You might buy the City but lease it’s battery or drive one when needed through a car-sharing service like Zipcar. Or from your neighborhood grocery store.

James Andrews, a Think spokesman, told me that sales of the City will begin this summer at Migros supermarkets. M-Way will initially set up retail outlets at Migros stores in urban areas.

It’s a smart strategy to expose consumers to electric cars. After all, how often do you casually stroll through car dealerships, which, in the United States at least, tend to be isolated in “auto rows” off the beaten path.

Now how often do you pop down to Whole Foods or Safeway for a gallon of milk? You’re probably likely to check out the City or another electric car if you pass it on the way to the wine aisle. Maybe you’ll even take one for a test drive around the block.

Migros’ M-Way already has sold a fleet of 60 Citys to Alpmobil, an eco-tourism company that will provide them for the use of its guests at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

Back in the 1990s, Think leased a previous version of the City to San Francisco Bay Area residents as part of a pilot project that let them plug the cars in to charge at train stations. Among the Think early adopters was a guy named Sergey Brin.

San Francisco is likely to be among the first U.S. cities to receive shipments of the latest City when Think begins selling the car in America later this year. Who knows, you might even be able to buy one at the farmer’s market one day.

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photo: Todd Woody

In my new Green State column on Grist, I test drive the Chevrolet Volt in San Francisco and ponder if General Motors’ electric hybrid car will persuade Californians to buy American again:

If you happened by an empty parking lot near San Francisco’s waterfront baseball park Tuesday morning, you would have seen some people  putting a low-slung black sedan through its paces on a makeshift track outlined by fluorescent orange pylons.

What was remarkable was not so much that the car — the Chevrolet Volt — was electric, but that it hailed from Detroit.

Toyotas, Hondas, BMWs, and Mercedes rule the road in the Golden State’s coastal metropolises, where sightings of American sedans are about as rare as a California condor.

Like Ford, Nissan, Coda Automotive, Think, and other electric automakers, General Motors brought the Volt to San Francisco because, as I wrote in The New York Times recently, this is where the future of the electric car is unfolding first. (Driving home that point was Thursday’s news that Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors is buying the defunct Bay Area manufacturing plant that previously produced cars for Toyota and General Motors and will now build electric cars in partnership with the Japanese auto giant.)

So the Volt may be GM’s best chance to reintroduce itself to two generations of California drivers who wrote the automaker off as the maker of hopelessly staid and low-quality cars.

“The Volt is going to make people reconsider Chevy and GM again,” Tony Posawatz, Volt vehicle line director, tells me as a group of journalists and influential electric car enthusiasts waited for their turn behind the wheel.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Think

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about Norwegian electric carmaker Think’s announcement that it will open its first U.S. assembly plant in Indiana:

Think, the Norwegian electric carmaker, said on Tuesday that it will open its first American assembly plant in Elkhart, Ind.

The Think City, a battery-powered, two-seat hatchback, is set to begin rolling off the Indiana assembly line in early 2011, ramping up to a potential annual production of 20,000 cars by 2013. The factory is expected to eventually employ more than 400 workers.

About 1,500 of the plastic-bodied cars are already on the street in Europe, and Think will begin selling the City in the United States later this year. The car will be imported from a Finland assembly plant until the Indiana factory opens in a former recreational vehicle factory.

Think’s investment in the Indiana facility depends in part on securing a United States Department of Energy loan guarantee to finance the project, according to Richard Canny, Think’s chief executive.

“Our plan is based around the D.O.E. loan,” Mr. Canny said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “If that didn’t happen we would be looking at a slower and shallower investment plan.”

Indiana was one of several states vying for the Think assembly plant. Tax incentives offered by Indiana and Elkhart’s proximity to automotive suppliers in neighboring Michigan helped clinch the deal, according Mr. Canny.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Think

Norwegian electric car maker Think has exited bankruptcy protection and brought on board new investors. As I write in the New York Times Green Inc. blog today:

Norwegian electric car maker Th!nk is back on the road.

The company on Thursday said it has exited bankruptcy protection and secured $47 million in new funding to restart production of the Think City, a highway-capable urban runabout with a range of about 112 miles.

Think had shut down its assembly line outside of Oslo late last year when the global financial crisis cut off access to new capital.

But is Think still a Norwegian automaker? The company did get some local street cred Thursday: Among its new shareholders is Investinor, an investment fund backed by the Norwegian government.

Still, in another sign of the globalization of the nascent electric car industry, the Think City will now be made in Finland at the plant of one of its new investors, Valmet Automotive. (Valmet assembles the Porsche Boxster and Cayman and will begin producing the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid electric sports sedan.)

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Think

Norwegian electric carmaker Think is going into the drive-train businesses with battery maker EnerDel and their first big customer is the Japanese postal service.

Think makes the City, a two-seater urban runabout currently sold in Europe. EnerDel supplies (ENER1) lithium-ion batteries for the car and will be the provider of batteries for Think’s new electric drive-train business.

“We have seen increased interest in Think’s proprietary EV drive system from a variety of third parties, which represents a significant and exciting new business line and revenue opportunity for the company,” said Think CEO Richard Canny in a statement.

The company is selling the drive trains to Zero Sports, a Japanese company that converts cars to battery power and which is working with the Japanese postal service to electrify its 22,000-vehicle fleet.

Think, previously owned by Ford (F), was forced to halt production of the City late last year as the global financial crisis cut off access to capital. The company subsequently obtained new funding and has announced plans to build a factory in the United States.

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photo: Think

Norwegian electric automaker Think on Wednesday announced a deal to send 550 of its City urban runabouts to Spain, continuing to seed the European market as governments offer incentives for carbon-free cars.

The deal with Spanish electric car distributor Going Green calls for Think to start delivering the City later this year through early 2010. Spain’s government has launched a €10 million ($13.3 million) program to subsidize electric cars and an electric car charging network. Going Green will sell the Think City to private customers as well as to companies and municipalities.

“Spain is an important and large market for us, and the Spanish government’s decisive action to move to electric vehicles will enable Think to continue to take advantage of our first-mover position in the European EV market,” Think CEO Richard Canny said in a statement.

Think has done similar-sized deals in the Netherlands and Austria while it conducts a bake-off in the U.S. among eight states that want to host the company’s North American assembly plant. While Think continues to do deals, its factory outside Oslo remains idle as it attempts to secure funding to restart operations after the credit crunch forced layoffs late last year.

Ironically, one country not providing incentives to Think is Norway. The Norwegian government has rejected Think’s plea for a loan guarantee to help it raise capital. That had Think investor Wilber James, a venture capitalist with Rockport Capital Partners, fuming when Green Wombat ran into him at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference two weeks ago.

“The Norwegian government has made trillions from North Sea oil, and they can’t give Think $10 million!” said James, whose firm invested in Think last year and formed Think North America with Silicon Valley VC Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He noted that three U.S. states, meanwhile, are offering tax breaks and cash in a bid to become the site of Think North America’s first U.S. factory. Oregon was one of the states, James said; he would not say what the other two were.

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photo: Think

Not too many car factories are getting built in the United States these days, especially in the midst of a global economic meltdown. So the prospect of landing Norwegian electric carmaker Think’s North American plant will have Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Senator Ron Wyden turning out Tuesday to take a test drive of the Think City in Portland with company CEO Richard Canny.

Oregon is one of eight states Think is considering for the assembly plant. The company has been coy about identifying those states and has only said that Michigan and Oregon are in the running. About Tuesday’s media event, Think said in a statement that “the future of electric car manufacturing in Oregon will be the topic of a news conference.”

When it comes to electric car factories, there’s a certain Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown risk for prospective hosts. Silicon Valley electric car company Tesla Motors, for instance, so far has signed and then canceled agreements to build a factory for its new Model S sports sedan in New Mexico and San Jose. Los Angeles, the latest factory site, hopes the third time’s a charm.

Nothing nefarious at work here, just the tenuous economics of startup electric car companies. Think, for example, is on the hunt for additional capital so it can restart its assembly plant in Norway. It idled the factory and laid off workers late last year when the credit crunch dried up funding. The company has some heavyweight backers, including General Electric (GE), and marquee venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital have invested in its North American operation.

Think says it will  apply for a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy under its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to help pay for its U.S. factory. Undoubtedly part of the bake-off with the eight states under consideration is to see which can offer the best tax breaks and incentives.

After the first-year startup phase, the U.S. factory will initially employ 300 workers and is projected to produce 16,000 cars annually, according to Think. Capacity would eventually be expanded to 60,000 cars and a workforce of 900. A research and development center will employ about 70 people.

Green Wombat is betting that Think will try to locate the assembly plant on the West Coast. So far Think has targeted densely populated, environmentally friendly cities — London, Amsterdam — to roll out the Think City, a two-seater urban runabout that goes about 112 miles on a charge.  Former CEO Jan-Olaf Willums told Green Wombat last year that the San Francisco Bay Area was a likely gateway market in the U.S. In November, the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland inked a deal with Better Place to build a $1 billion electric car charging network in the Bay Area.

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