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Electric shock: East coast network by 2012

Electrifying: Renault's Scenic ZEV H2 electric prototype recharges.

Revolutionary new $1 billion EV recharge system to be rolled out Down Under by 2012

27 Oct 2008

AUSTRALIANS could soon be able to sign up for an electric car in much the same way they do now for a mobile phone – even getting a new car for nothing and paying only for the running costs, equivalent to what we now pay for petrol.

The innovative subscription-based scheme, which promises to revolutionise the entire motor industry, is scheduled to be up and running with an electric vehicle (EV) recharging infrastructure down the east coast of Australia by 2012.

Devised by US-based company Better Place, the scheme already has the backing of some heavy hitters, including local power supplier AGL Energy, investment bank Macquarie Capital Group, the Victorian government and Renault-Nissan, which has agreed to supply vehicles to Better Place globally.

Macquarie has committed to help raise $1 billion to begin deploying the required infrastructure needed to keep EVs on the road.

This will include more than 200,000 charge stations – which will look like parking meters – in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, located at homes, businesses, car parks and shopping centres.

To enable the cars to be driven interstate and into regional areas, Better Place said it will establish about 150 battery exchange stations at about 40km intervals on major freeways.

Although the company has not provided details on how these automated ‘switch stations’ will work with a wide variety of cars, the company claims they will automatically swap the battery for a fully-charged unit in about three minutes – less than the time it now takes to refuel.

Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi, a former executive with computer software company SAP, came up with his phone-inspired scheme only three years ago and formally established Better Place just last year after raising US$200 million from a number of investors.

Mr Agassi said that Better Place will not build the cars and is structured “like Telstra” – it will create the network and then sign contracts with motorists for a set number of kilometres per month or per year, with the cost to be the same as running a petrol-powered car.

The longer the contract period and the higher the monthly usage, the cheaper the car – sign up for four to six years and you get the car for free, said Mr Agassi.

80 center imageLeft: Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi.

The new Australian venture was launched last week in Australia, which becomes the third country to sign up for an electric car infrastructure.

Mr Agassi’s country of birth, Israel, announced a partnership with Better Place in January this year and Denmark signed-up in March.

Mr Agassi said he approached every major car-maker in the world in early 2007 but that only two responded, one of which was Renault-Nissan, with which he has formed an alliance.

However, Better Place intends to make the recharging grid available to everyone and is building it to what the company hopes will become an industry standard.

Mr Agassi said that he chose Australia because, with an eye on the United States, he wanted to prove that it will work in a large country and not just small countries like Israel and Denmark.

“We’re always asked if our model would actually scale to go bigger than these two small ‘islands’, so we figure it’s time pick a bigger island to demonstrate our ability to scale and what better island than the sixth-largest country on earth, Australia, demonstrating that you can take sustainable transportation to any size,” Mr Agassi said at the Melbourne launch.

“We picked Australia to show that the model works regardless of how far the urban centres are from one another. The model is actually scalable and we believe that Australia could be a demonstration project and proof-point for the US as well as the UK and the rest of the developed world.

“When you think about the east coast of Australia, it has a lot of similarities to the west coast of the United States – urban centres roughly in a radius of 100 miles (160km) each, connected through very few transportation arteries, which can effectively be turned into ‘electric highways’.

“If it can be done between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, you can see the same thing happening between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

“Australia is also a car nation and it actually has more cars per capita than the US. With 15 million cars, it’s the seventh-highest per-capita car ownership in the world, ahead of the US and the UK. So, if you take a car nation like Australia and turn it into electric cars, we actually (would) have a very strong proof-point.” Named as one of Time magazine’s ‘Heroes of the Environment 2008’, Mr Agassi – who was described as “part scientist, part visionary, with a lot of salesman thrown in” – said that Australia is well-placed to benefit from the move to electric cars.

He said that a wholesale switch to renewable electricity would make Australia “completely natural-resource independent” because oil is the only natural resource that Australia still imports.

“We are investing in Australia’s economy and adding jobs while helping the country take a generational leap forward toward oil independence,” said Mr Agassi.

“With our commitment to build infrastructure and the Federal Government’s $500 million Green Car Innovation Fund, there is a compelling case for automobile manufacturers to jump in and build clean, safe, affordable electric cars for Australasia and Southeast Asia.

“The opportunity opens up a tremendous market for the auto industry – 15 million cars converting into electric is the biggest open market today in the world where infrastructure is committed to be put in place.

“It’s time for the second century of cars (and) the next century is not built on gasoline, it’s built on electric.

“We believe that, by putting our billion-dollar investment into infrastructure, and with the government support in building an automotive industry, we’re replacing oil imports with a tremendous amount of jobs, effectively (showing) how you treat the problem of our planet, of sustainability, not by slowing down the economy but by increasing the speed of development (and) converting natural resources and emissions into clean, green jobs that train our kids in the future economy.” The Victorian government showed its support for the Better Place proposal with the presence at the launch of state minister for environment, climate control and innovation, Gavin Jennings, and provided a statement by Premier John Brumby, but did not reveal if Better Place is receiving funding from the federal green car fund.

“The Victorian government supports any initiative that will have positive outcomes in reducing emissions in the transport sector and welcomes this innovative approach to help make broad adoption of EVs in Australia possible,” said Mr Brumby in the statement.

AGL Energy has undertaken to provide “power from wind, hydro and other renewable sources” and said that, because EVs are primarily recharged overnight at home, they can “maximise the potential of intermittent renewable energy such as wind”.

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