Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Israel Leads the Electric Charge
HERZLIYA, Israel, Apr 12, 2011 (IPS) - A woman takes the driver's seat, turns on the radio, sliding through broadcasts of the tit-for-tat battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas till she finds a quiet music station.
"I can't hear anything," she mutters while starting the engine. The sedan silently pulls out of the visitors centre's parking lot. Driving on the test runway, she marvels, "Great pick-up, no difference at all." And clean too. The instructor demonstrates the prowess of the computerised touch-board. "That's the battery status bar," he points out.
The 'Achilles wheel', so to speak, of EVs (Electric Vehicles) is precisely the battery. Driving electric a long distance would have seemed a far off dream. Not any more.
'Better Place' is a most improbable start-up. In 2007, Israeli engineer-turned- businessman Shay Agassi developed a fairly simple concept: take an EV, a charging spot and a battery switch station, disseminate the three across the country and develop a grid of thousands of filling stations where gasoline is replaced by electricity.
The blessed 'land of milk and honey' is fuelled not with oil, but with ideas, Israelis like to say about their country. In that case, 'Better Place' stands for better idea. It's the first and only EV services provider in the world.
"What makes us different is that we implement a sustainable model and provide a comprehensive solution to servicing car batteries and managing switch stations and charging spots," explains Dan Cohen, the company's vice- president responsible for overseeing strategic initiatives.
Much like buying a package of cell-phone services with fees charged on a per-minute basis, with a swap card you'll buy electricity per kilometre you drive. The system is compatible with most batteries. The standard switch stations look like car washes.
Deploying an electric "smart grid" to wire the whole country upfront before the first EV customers come on board necessitates complex logistics. "That means finding appropriate sites for building stations, acquiring sites, proper permits," explains Cohen. Swapping out 500-kilo batteries locked in under EVs was an engineering headache. The solution was to adapt the hooks that hold one-ton bombs in combat aircrafts. Charging and replacing EV batteries is now as fast as filling up car oil tanks.
"The whole notion of oil independence is a national security issue for us," Cohen stresses. Call it lucrative patriotism.
So, what's in 'Better Place'? The wishful thinking of Israelis stuck in a perennial state of war, insulated from their Arab neighbours?
If what you lack is a measure of what you create, then Better Place is where a problem is turned into an asset. Israel is a sealed "transportation islet", right? Drivers cannot cross the border, whether international (with Syria and Lebanon) or non-recognised (with the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza). That actually helps contain the scope of the needed infrastructure. Its small size makes Israel the perfect incubator for breeding such a concept, is the selling argument.
Still, Agassi needed two things; one automaker and cash. With a little help from President Shimon Peres who shares the vision of an oil-free world, within one year Better Place became the world's fifth largest start-up.
Last year, it signed an agreement with the consortium Renault-Nissan for the purchase and sale in Israel and Denmark – another dot on the map – of a first batch of 100,000 EVs. Spreading the gospel of green electricity, the firm has since signed contracts with over 150 national electric grids, automotive companies and battery producers.
Earlier this month, it launched its roadmap network, a test run for the 27 countries, including Canada, the U.S., Australia, Japan and China, that signed agreements with the start-up to embark on a similar journey.
By the year's end, Israel will have its own grid. Next year the "Car 2.0", as Better Place officials call the EV, will start replacing the internal combustion vehicle.
"We'll introduce 5,000 cars and we'll rapidly scale. Israelis like to embrace innovations, they sign up," says Cohen. "The EV is a cheap machine, just an electric motor with a chassis," chimes in the instructor.
Better Place hopes to ignite a global transport revolution. In the 1970s, Israel made a vague attempt at producing the 'Susita' sedan. Popular myth has it that its best customer was actually the ship of the desert, the camel, who'd find the fibreglass body tasty and chew parts of the car.
Today, foreseen difficulties are more mundane. "The GPS navigation system indicates how many people queue in each switch station," shows the instructor on the electronic control board.
Imagine, 6 pm, the evening rush hour, Israelis commute back home after a long day's work, park and charge their car while home appliances, electric heaters or air conditioners are on. And suddenly, boom, a street blackout.
Yehuda Niv, Electricity Administration Commissioner at the National Infrastructures ministry, warns, "The power in the streets won't be enough to sustain many charging spots at once." Better Place officials are confident. Their software will enable smooth distribution of the power load between areas of the electric grid.
"R&D investment in operational efficiency is significant. Innovations will come in various forms – how we deploy better, how we improve utilities, how quickly we install a switch station," Cohen says.
In the sci-fi movie "The Fifth Element", Bruce Willis is an EV taxi driver who saves the world with the help of the 'fifth element', a superwoman. The ancient four elements of nature were water, earth, wind and fire. Needless to say oil didn't constitute an ingredient upon which fundamental power is based.
Nowadays, the air breathed by Israelis is polluted; water is scare; land is an issue, drawing ire, and fire.
"The greatest contribution of the Jewish people in history is dissatisfaction," Peres once said about the Israeli drive to innovate. If only such frustration would translate into peacemaking.
Better Place ambitions to impact positively on global economics, politics and the environment. If their innovation cannot save the world, at least, the hope is, it'll save Israel from itself.