With All-Electric Cars, Israel, France Show the Way
September 24, 2008
While our national search for energy independence is driven by multiple factors the transfer of national wealth to unstable and unfriendly countries, the specter of peak oil and a concern about the effects of burning more fossil fuels the state of Israel has even greater reason to seek alternative sources of energy.
Spurred by the efforts of successful American-Israeli software developer,
Shai Agassi, the Israeli government has promised to support the
development of an infrastructure to facilitate the use of all-electric cars throughout the country. While most of
the focus in the automobile industry has been on hybrids, many agree that it is only an interim solution before new battery technology is available to power all-electric cars with adequate speed and range.
While all-electric cars have been around more than a 100 years, other attempts to mass produce electric cars in today’s world have been limited by current battery technology. Agassi, however, realized that even with a limited range of 100 miles,
are shorter and, meanwhile, the batteries could be recharged or replaced at charging stations or parking areas. In a sense, he saw the battery as a fuel tank which could be replenished during the day, though this will require as many as 500,000 charging installations scattered at parking lots throughout the country.
Much like a cell phone network, Israelis would subscribe to a monthly service whereby they sign up for so many miles and be charged for the power they use at recharging stations. Using power generated from solar installations in the Negev desert, drivers will be able to either recharge the batteries in their cars or exchange used batteries for fresh ones in special charging outlets.
Not only will this arrangement reduce the consumption of imported fuel and make Israel more independent of Middle East oil producers, but it will provide a cheaper form of transportation which is emissions free, assuming that the electric power would come from renewable sources.
Agassi’s company, Project Better Place of Palo Alto, California, will manufacture the batteries and has already contracted with Renault of France and Nissan of Japan to produce 500 cars which will be available next year. Under this arrangement, the owner buys the car from Renault-Nissan and subscribes to a Better Place service which includes use of the battery and the electricity from the charging stations. Denmark and Portugal are considering similar schemes and Renault-Nissan has already committed itself to producing an all-electric car for the U.S. market by 2010.
Because Better Place owns the battery, a major cost in electric cars, and Israel will provide a 10% tax credit for electric cars through 2015, the price of electric cars will be comparable to regular cars. Since some of the recharging would be done at night, when electricity is cheaper, and the only cost to the consumer would be the energy consumed in driving, the cost of operation should be much less than driving a gas-powered car, especially if gas prices continue to spike. Gasoline currently costs over $6.00 a gallon in Israel.
A pilot program involving a few dozen cars will start later this year in Tel Aviv and Agassi promises that there will be several thousand electric cars on the road by 2009 and 100,000 by 2010 in Israel.
Granted, Israel is a relatively small country, with no great distances between destinations, and has more potential for solar power than most countries, but why wouldn’t this model be relevant for larger countries with the potential for wind, solar, hydroelectric or ocean-wave power? It also provides a concrete model for public-private sector cooperation, based on national or public interest.
If the Israeli model succeeds, Renault-Nissan plans to develop models for other small countries or large urban areas like Paris, London or New York. Even China, with its increasing problems of traffic, pollution and energy costs, is being considered as a potential market for electric cars.
T. Boone Pickens Proposal
In the United States, T. Boone Pickens, who made his fortune in oil, has proposed creating wind power factories in the Midwest wind corridor to replace the use of natural gas for generating electricity and then using natural gas, of which there is an adequate supply, for powering trucks and cars. Many public utilities, transit authorities and businesses have already switched to natural gas for their fleets since it is cheaper and pollutes less. While his declared motivation is stopping the flow of billions of dollars to foreign oil producers, Mr. Pickens has also invested millions in wind farms in the Texas Panhandle.
Following the Israeli example, and assuming government support for such a program, however, why not convert our automobile fleet to electricity generated by wind and solar power, and perhaps supplemented by natural gas, which, while a fossil fuel, burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel. Given the size of our country, the limited range of electric cars and the problems of transmitting electricity over long distances, switching to all-electric vehicles might not be feasible, however, especially in the West. On the other hand, a combination of electricity-powered vehicles and recharging stations might meet the needs of urban commuters whose daily trips average less than 40 miles.
The mayor of Paris has proposed a rent-a-car system in which electric cars would be available for rent from outlying suburbs for travel into the city. Thus, rather than owning and insuring a personal car, individuals could go to a rental station and pay for a one-time trip into the city, dropping off the car when they reach a metro station or their destination, thereby making the car available for other trips throughout the day.
Given Paris’ excellent public transit system, this arrangement might reduce traffic, certainly in the center of the city and eliminate the need for parking lots and the stress of finding a parking place. The idea is that the drop-off vehicle would be rented by another driver going in a different direction, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot for 8-10 hours. Commuters would not have to own and insure their own vehicles, but only pay a small fee for the temporary use of an electric car when it is needed. Many urbanites rely on public transit, yet occasionally need a vehicle for special trips, which this system would provide without the inconvenience and expense of maintenance and storage.
Since Parisians have readily adopted to a system of sharing bicycles, the Mayor contends that providing safe, community owned and operated electric cars would attract those living outside the city but working in the center of Paris. Called Autolib, the project has plans to have a fleet of 4000 electric cars by 2010, 2000 in Paris, another 2000 in suburbs, at 700 different locations.
While opponents object that it will increase the dependency on individual vehicles and increase traffic in an already congested city center, one of the central ideas of the concept is to discourage potential car buyers from purchasing their own vehicles, especially a gas-powered car -- in other words getting away from individually-owned vehicles which pollute and require space. But, will there be enough demand for outgoing cars, that is, leaving or entering the city center throughout the workday?
On another positive note, this arrangement would not require an elaborate new infrastructure, other than providing recharge facilities at the rental and drop-off locations. Since 70% of the electrical power generated in France is from nuclear plants, it would rely mainly on nuclear power.
For car-crazy Americans, the idea of not owning a car and driving a shared rental car would require a major adjustment, though the savings, convenience and relief might outweigh the rites of ownership for young urbanites.
Nissan Tests Electric Car in Bay Area
Nissan, which has committed to producing all-electric vehicles, has targeted the environmentally sensitive San Francisco Bay Area to test the all-electric car it hopes to make available to the general public in the United States and Japan in 2010. These cars are not just light golf carts; they would hold 4 or 5 people and have a range of 125 miles, more than enough for most daily trips.
Nissan has plans to introduce 60 different electric models by 2012. Though they will start with smaller cars, the Nissan electric fleet will include a large range of vehicles. They will be powered by a new 80-kilowatt motor with advanced lithium-ion batteries twice as powerful than current conventional ones.
Local Government Agencies Interested
Since all the municipalities in Sonoma County in Northern California have pledged to reduce carbon emissions to 25% of the 1990 level by 2015, county agencies and municipalities are exploring the use of electric cars, vans and trucks for their fleets. While many of these agencies have already purchased hybrid vehicles in order to reduce operating costs and meet emission targets, hybrids still use gasoline and release emissions.
Though the specifics are not available, these government agencies are now working closely with Nissan and may lease or purchase test models from the company for trial use. From the company’s perspective, Sonoma County provides a unique opportunity for it to road test its vehicles in a friendly environment, and it hopes to be the first major manufacturer to market an emissions-free vehicle in the United States. Imagine the ads featuring quiet, emissions-free cars winding through the wine country or along the coast.
In view of the above, and many other examples of successful new energy technologies, does it make any sense to make a major campaign issue out of offshore drilling in coastal areas or in Alaska, or tapping the Strategic Oil Reserve, when the effect of these efforts would be minimal at best, and certainly problematic? Given the repercussions of recent price hikes, we should explore all options, but why not make a serious proposal for a government-private sector initiative to subsidize and develop new energy technologies and the infrastructure to wean us from not only imported fuels, but also fossil fuels in general? The wealth saved and the jobs created would reinvigorate our economy while contributing to the reduction in greenhouse gasses and their impact on the planet’s health.