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Oz EV infrastructure on track

Quick change: Better Place's trial battery swap station in Tokyo can change a battery in less than a minute.

Better Place “on time and budget” for its EV recharge and battery swap site rollout

General News logo27 Apr 2010

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in TOKYO

BETTER Place Australia CEO Evan Thornley says the electric vehicle infrastructure company will prove sceptics wrong by ‘building it’ rather than ‘dreaming it’ when it starts rolling out its battery-swap and recharge stations in Australia, starting in Canberra in 2011.

Mr Thornley said Better Place was well advanced on its network plan for battery switch sites around the country, with at least one “in key districts and then more detailed site acquisitions to occur” as the rollout of EVs gathered pace.

“Most of those will occur in the second half of 2011 or early in 2012,” he said.

Speaking in Tokyo at the opening of Better Place’s world-first taxi battery swap station, Mr Thornley said he had overcome every obstacle put in his way.

He said opponents of Better Place’s pledge to ‘rid the world’s addiction to oil’ only had fear, uncertainty and doubt to rely on, and the company had continued to grow and attract investment, despite the global financial crisis and the massive trough the world’s car industry was in.

The company believes this momentum will continue as more Australians grasp the fact that – based on average mileages for vehicles – it will actually be significantly cheaper to switch from fossil fuel to electricity when mainstream EV sales commence.

 center imageLeft: A car being charged in Tokyo. Below: Better Place Australia CEo Evan Thornley.

Underlying this is the convenience and speed of the battery switch process that – at under 60 seconds as demonstrated in at the Better Place’s first swap station – was “less time than it takes to pee”, company CEO and founder Shai Agassi said, and quicker than most petrol station fill-up times.

“I don’t think there are any fundamental barriers. We are ready for the solution,” Mr Thornley told GoAuto.

“The economics of today – with today’s battery prices, today’s electricity prices and today’s petrol prices – would make it viable for a significant proportion of vehicles to be cheaper to run as electric rather than petrol,” he said.

“By the time we finish building the network around the country – which is 2013 – unless something changes from the current trend line for both battery prices and petrol prices, that will be a significant proportion of vehicles – particularly new vehicles.

“And as battery prices continue to fall and oil prices continue to rise eventually all EVs will be cheaper to run. So we don’t see the economics as a barrier.

“We also don’t see any fundamental regulatory or related barriers. We see a lot of areas where regulatory environments were not necessarily written with the contemplation of EVs and EV recharging, so it is probably preferable to have some amendments to those regulatory areas. But we’ve had a very positive response from governments.

“They’ve said ‘give us the list and we want to act on it … but if nobody changes anything tomorrow we will still be able to roll out. It would be a little more cumbersome – so there are no showstoppers either on the regulatory front.”

Accessing ‘clean’ electricity that does not require brown coal or other carbon-releasing methods to make it is also one of Better Place Australia’s core goals.

Mr Thornley – a former Victorian Labor politician – explained that although wind power would probably be the company’s primary electricity source for Australia, the fact that it can come from a variety of generators without impacting the EV infrastructure or the car itself was another benefit.

These other sources will include geo thermal (“certainly if that is brought to industrial scale”), solar thermal, and clean coal technology “if that comes good”.

“We certainly don’t see the availability of premium electricity as a barrier at all,” he said. “We are very confident about plenty of renewable electricity being available.

“That’s an important point about EVs – your energy source is independent. You can move from one form of zero emissions electricity source to another without a single dollar of new investment in the car fleet or the charge network.” However, Better Place Australia would not comment on whether it supports nuclear power sourcing.

“That’s not for us to comment. If the community decides that is the path it wants to go down, then it does. We are not in the business of advocating one way or another,” Mr Thornley said.

“We see plenty of zero emissions energy sources available today – and on a practical matter there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of any nuclear power being available in this country within the next 15 years anyway, so if or when it happens we will deal with that then.”

Mr Thornley said that proving Better Place sceptics wrong by ‘building it’ rather than ‘dreaming it’ has been behind Shai Agassi’s decision to assemble the world’s media in Tokyo to witness the taxi battery switch operation in action, and the same principle would silence Australian critics when the infrastructure was unveiled firstly in Canberra next year.

“That’s a lot of what Canberra will be all about. Here will be a city running on EVs.

“People need to see it, touch it, feel it and drive it – and I think that’s fair enough. People are entitled to be sceptical until they see things working, but that was the purpose of the Taxi EV battery swap demonstration in Tokyo.

“(For sceptics) it’s an instant conversion because it is such an unremarkable event … it’s a much more satisfying thing to see a fact, and seeing EV taxis having their battery switched in 59.2 seconds is a fact. It’s all working.” Nevertheless, Mr Thornley expects EV users will charge their cars at their home or workplace 90 per cent of the time, and that when a battery switch was required, Better Place had demonstrated that it would happen quicker and less often than it takes to fill up a tank with fossil fuel.

“In your daily driving there are very few drivers doing more than (the EV battery range of) 160km at a stretch – even people who live in the outer suburbs who may have to commute 40 or 50 kilometres,” he said.

“So we believe for the average motorist you may have to go for months at a time without switching batteries.

“Of course we all down go down to the coast or drive between cities once or twice a year.

“But switching is less of a big deal than filling up with petrol, and you have to do it far less often. Switching is the back-up. Plug-in is the main form of energy sourcing for an EV.

“It is less glamourous, and gets less of the attention, but somebody’s got to go and install all of those plug-in points, and we are going to be doing that.

“But plug-in points it is not all that EV motorists need. So in order to have the confidence to go and buy and drive an EV, it is great to know that on those rare occasions when you are going to do a lot of driving you are not going to have a problem. It’s the purpose of the battery switch station.” Mr Thornley said Better Place Australia was at an advanced stage of the macro network plan for battery switch sites around Australia, with at least one “in key districts and then more detailed site acquisitions to occur” as the rollout of EVs gathers pace.

“Most of those will occur in the second half of 2011 or early in 2012,” he said.

“The benchmark we have always had for ourselves is when you show the network coverage map to motorists (on day one in 2013) then 80 per cent of motorists should be able to look at that and say: ‘Yep, that’s everywhere where I want to go’, and we will improve from there.”

Mr Thornley added that Australia’s unique issues compared with the other two start-up countries, Israel and Denmark, such as distances between major centres, water management concerns and climate characteristics, had all been factored into the Better Place infrastructure model, so there had been no real unexpected problems or blow-out of the A$1 billion cost of the rollout.

“We always knew and expected that this is a metal-in-the-ground business,” he said.

“The construction environments are different. The regulatory environments are different. The electricity structures are different – and that’s part of the reason why we are doing a few countries first, to get a variety of those operating environments and what we do with the global research and development organisations is feed all that back in to localisation of each of our markets, and that gives us a knowledge of localisation solutions globally that – after we’ve done four or five countries – we would have most of the models for most of the other countries.

“I don’t think there has been fundamentally anything different for Australia that has required anything (different). Between Israel and Denmark you have most of the climatic conditions for Australia … there are only (small) elements that will be unique to the Australian operating environment.

“It’s not news to us. You can do the math quickly on how many swap stations we will need to connect the major cities, and it is not a traumatically large number. And that was all factored in when we made the original announcement of how much money we would need to roll out the network, and having done much more detailed planning work since, we are still comfortable with that number.”

Tackling misinformation from established energy source opponents was not new to Mr Thornley, who founded the advertising Internet search company LookSmart in the 1990s (and which has since become one of the few Australian companies to have listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange).

The transformation he saw then as an early Internet advocate is what he is experiencing again now with EVs.

“We old Silicon Valley boys are all too wary of the FUD strategy – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

“It what all incumbents do in the face of an insurgent newcomer. It’s the only thing that know what to do, and that is deploy their three old friends FUD!” he said.

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