Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Better Place

"Detroit is dead."

These prophetic words by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. were spoken only days before General Motors and Ford both announced huge quarterly losses. Kennedy was speaking to a group of public sector and industry leaders at the Sustainable Operations Summit in Vancouver. He continued, "These companies will be bankrupt unless they go electric."

With all three major Detroit car manufacturers teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, Kennedy's comments could be construed as a hopeless statement of the inevitable. But they aren't.

Kennedy's words offer hope, not only for the auto sector, but for the planet. Kennedy spoke of a Better Place – and the possibility of a world where the air is clean and cars literally run on sunshine.

Better Place is in fact a company that is transforming countries with its innovative approach to transportation and energy. Better Place is founded on four basic pillars – a world living free from oil, a planet healing and thriving, and an environment and economy brought back in balance with each other.

Founded in October 2007 by Shai Agassi with $ 200 million of venture capital, Better Place is already well on its way to creating a sustainable transportation grid for the entire country of Israel. With all of its major urban centers less than 150 kilometers apart and the average car owner traveling less than 70 km. per day, Israel is ideally suited for electric cars. If all goes according to plan, every gas-guzzling car in the country will be replaced by an electric vehicle within three years.

The idea is simple, elegant and completely doable. As Kennedy described, Israel is currently being rewired. Every parking space is being equipped with an electrical outlet for quick recharges, ensuring that car batteries will always have at least 160 km. of driving capacity.

For longer trips, automated battery switching stations, much like our existing gas stations, are being constructed. Depleted batteries will be replaced in less time that it takes to fill up a fuel tank without anyone ever having to leave the vehicle.

"These electric cars which can go 0 to 60 in five seconds will be given away for free," said Kennedy. "The cost of driving them will be 6 cents a mile, versus 60 cents a mile." (Israeli gas prices, which are the third highest in the world, recently topped $ 2.20 Canadian per liter in August.)

Users will pay for distance traveled as well as a system access fee, similar to the cell phone business model.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance has partnered with Better Place to build the zero-emission cars, with the first prototype debuting in Israel in January of this year. To provide the electricity for the estimated 750,000 cars that will eventually replace Israel's existing gasoline powered vehicles, huge investments have been made in solar and wind farms.

The true genius of the Better Place grid is that the car batteries provide an excellent place to store electricity. This can address current limitations of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which are unable to provide power in the steady and continuous manner of a non-renewable facility.

Because the electricity is stored in 750,000 separate locations, the Better Place network offers a more stable grid that won't be subject to the problems often associated with large, centralized generation such as nuclear shutdowns. This decentralization also makes it less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The Better Place plan will also eliminate the need for peak power production. It's this peak power production, which is provided by coal, oil and other fossil fuel generation, that is the major source of greenhouse gases. Cars that have been recharged throughout the day will be able to discharge their stored up energy back to the grid when it is needed.

This will also eliminate the need for foreign oil - an issue of national security for Israel.

As the Better Place website explains, "When the sun goes down or the wind fades, they can't contribute power to the grid. And when they are pumping out the kilowatts, it doesn't always coincide with peak demand. Industrially generated electricity is tremendously expensive and difficult to store, so this green energy ends up going unused. But the Better Place grid is an industrial customer that is in constant need of electricity. Once in place, green power will never go to waste. There will always be a vehicle that can use it."

In addition to Israel, Denmark and Australia are also partnering with Better Place to create oil-free renewable energy/transportation networks.

Next week's column will look at Robert Kennedy Jr.'s vision for a new America.


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Blogger Jen G said...

I wanted to check in & say that I enjoy reading your blog. I've added your blog to my favourite blogs to read on my site.

November 16, 2008 6:53 AM  

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