Battery Swapping Stations for Electric Cars Could Mean the End of Oil

PHOTO: Better Place, a California start-up, says its electric cars cost less and go farther.
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Gas is expensive. Polar ice is melting. Oil revenue funds our enemies.

Yet despite these economic, environmental and security problems, we remain, to quote former President George W. Bush, "addicted to oil."

However, Shai Agassi, the founder and CEO of Better Place, says he has a way for us to get clean: battery-powered electric cars.

No, he's not the first person to say this. But he may be the one with the best approach, one that's simple and scalable enough to transform battery-powered cars from pricey – and some would add preachy -- hybrids or limited-range electrics to affordable cars people will drive coast to coast.

This week marks the commercial roll-out of Better Place's network in Israel, 100 battery swappable electric vehicles are being delivered to customers.

Better Place, a private company based in Palo Alto, Calif., is building its first electric vehicle network out of Israel's former oil depot. The location is no coincidence: Agassi's ultimate goal, elegantly aligned with his business plan, is a world without oil.

The cornerstone of that plan is offering multiple ways to charge car batteries.

"We basically came to a solution that has the ability to charge your car when you're parked at home or at work -- so you're always coming in to a full 'tank' -- and switch your battery when you're going on the freeway, longer distances," Agassi said.

The battery change occurs at Better Place "switch stations," car wash-like places where drivers pull in and relax in their cars while an empty battery is replaced with a charged one. It takes about as long as it does to fill a gas tank, the company said.

The key word is "replaced": Drivers don't own the battery, they just pay for the energy they use, which Agassi said would make the car about $10,000 cheaper than it would be otherwise.

"When you buy a gasoline car, nobody asks you to buy 10,000 gallons with it," he said. "You shouldn't ask somebody to buy the equivalent of 10,000 gallons of driving in the form of a battery."

There are also local "charge spots" at homes, offices, parking lots and malls. When swiped, a personal ID card tells the system who you are and how much charge you need. You plug a cable into the car, wait a few hours, and drive away fully charged.

For the car itself, Better Place partnered with French automaker Renault to create the Fluence.

"It's a car, it's a computer [that] links to the grid, tells you what the state your battery is in," Agassi said.

Similar to other electric cars, the Fluence's range is about 100 miles and it can reach 60 mph in several seconds. The power and speed of the car are also adjustable and can be controlled from an outside computer.

"You could download into the car a profile," Agassi said. "If your son takes the car on a Saturday night, you can say, 'I want to block the max speed at 55 mph.' It's a computer. You can do whatever you want."

While Israel is still considered the "beta country" for this project, there are overt 70,000 people on a waiting list to buy the Fluence. Dozens of switch stations are now in place in Israel.

Australia, Japan and Denmark are next. Better Place has also signed deals with China, Hawaii and San Francisco. In November the company announced it had secured $200 million in funding to expand throughout Western Europe. But getting the United States as a whole on board will be a challenge, some experts say.

"I think Israel's about the size of New Jersey. It's very concentrated. Even northern California would be hard to ... blanket with the kind of battery changing stations that we need," said Lisa Margonelli, director of energy policy at New America Foundation. "We have, like, 150,000 gas stations in the United States. They took about 100 years to build."

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