Devil’s Advocates Question Better Place

Electric car fans cheered this week’s announcement that Better Place, a startup based in Palo Alto, Calif., signed up the State of Hawaii to build a statewide recharging infrastructure for plug-in vehicles. But critics and some sympathetic supporters playing the role of Devil’s Advocates are asking tough questions.

Better Place and the Hawaii Electric Company plan to implement a vast network of charging stations for all-electric cars. Each charging station will take the shape of a triangular pole one meter high with a covered socket in the upper part. Better Place will then begin introducing limited numbers of Nissan electric vehicles throughout the state in mid-2010 to make use of the new plug-in vehicle recharging network. According to the plan, production of electric vehicles will be ramped up to mass-market availability by late 2012.

In November, the City of San Francisco invited Better Place to assist in developing a similar electric recharging network. The system will cost about $1 billion and utilize up to a half a million recharge outposts throughout the Bay Area. Completion of the project is estimated for 2012. Better Place has similar arrangements for Israel, Denmark, Sonoma County (Calif.) and other locations.

“Yeah, But” Say Some Critics

While most coverage of the Hawaii Better Place announcement simply reprinted the press release, a number of media outlets questioned the details of the ambitious plan. Shouldn’t even the most ardent fans of plug-in vehicles pause to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead?

The New York Times

“The scenario is complicated by several factors, including that mass production of high-performance, affordable battery packs appears to be years away.

“Better Place imagines a fully automated station that would carry all manufactured batteries ‘so that any electric vehicle with a swappable battery, regardless of make or model, can pull in and be serviced.’ But a jumble of battery types from various automakers, without industry-wide standardization, could obviously turn such a plan into a nightmare.”

The Register (UK)

“Shai Agassi [the founder of Better Place] even talks of subsidizing cars. But at the moment, this seems little more than talk. Speaking with The Register, he said Better Place will spring for your car’s battery — ‘in essence.’ A significant expense, to be sure. But it’s unclear exactly how this will work.

“Presumably, Hawaii has agreed to grease permitting for the Better Place network —and provide tax breaks for ‘leccy-car owners. But it appears the specifics have yet to be ironed out. Calls to multiple Hawaiian officials went unanswered.”

Greentechmedia

“One thing that sort of got buried in the announcement that Better Place will build charging stations for electric cars in Hawaii is that, well, they will function like gas stations for the next few years.

“Hawaii gets 85 percent of its energy from oil…As a result, when people plug-in their hybrids or go to one of Better Place’s charging stations on the island, they are filling up on electrons that were created by burning oil…By 2030, Hawaii wants to get 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources: wave power, wind farms, solar thermal plants and photovoltaic panels…That’s going to take some time, and Better Place is talking about getting permits for stations in the next year. As a result, those cars will likely be indirectly gas powered for a while.”


  • ex-EV1 driver

    (cross posted onto Greentechmedia also)
    Shame on Greentech Media not to know that an EV running off of electricity generated by an oil fired power plant gets much better than 100 miles per gallon of gasoline effectively.
    This is because of the much greater efficiency of a stationary power plant, the high efficiency of the power grid, and the high efficiency of an electric motor.

  • Shines

    When I read the article yesterday I realized, Hawaii is the perfect place for the Volt and electric vehicles. Most of the islands are relatively small except for the Big Island (which is half covered by volcanoe anyway). The volt (if it does get 40 miles on a charge) could travel anywhere on most of the islands on one charge. You wouldn’t even need electric fueling stations (just recharge it every night).
    Also with wind, solar, and wave technologies being developed, Hawaii is much more likely to become energy independent than the rest of the US.
    I think I’ll start making my retirement plans for sunny Hawaii ;-)

  • Harshal Patel

    Another blog has also raised questions about the viability of Project Better Place: http://www.energysniff.com/?p=698

  • Geoffrey A. Landis

    Hawai’i is a superb place for electric vehicle demonstrations. Each island is small– there’s not way you’re going to drive away to a place with no recharging stations. And, just as important, it remains warm year round. A real killer problem for electric vehicles is that cold batteries have poor efficiency and low charge (don’t expect to use them in Minnesota!). Hawai’i is perfect.

  • veek

    Does anyone know how long it takes one of the recharging stations to recharge a battery the equivalent of a tank of gas (say, about 10 gallons or 300 miles)? If the time is too long, electric vehicles lose appeal for extended travel away from home.

  • Ross Nicholson

    Geothermal?

  • EV Industry Player

    Better Place is fabulous at PR. Let’s see if they deliver. There is too much smoke and mirrors here. The very idea that you can convince multiple car manufacturers to adopt a single battery pack that can be switched in and out at the “car wash” – like station displayed on the Better Place website is at best far fetched – particularly in the time frame announced.

    I wonder why Nissan has been “mysteriously absent” from the last few announcements – including the CA project…perhaps they too are catching on to the house of cards built by Shai that will inevitably collapse and do harm to the EV industry.

  • Bill Cosworth

    Oh WOW a Chevy Volt electric racing a prius.

    Volt wins!

    http://gm-volt.com/2008/12/05/volt-one-step-ahead-of-the-prius/

  • Shines

    Bill Bill Bill
    Will you ever stop your ridiculousness???

    The Volt mule’s front end is stopped ahead of the Prius’s.

    No race, not a race. Not even a real volt – a volt mule.
    Volt hasn’t won anything yet.
    In the end Volt may become a better or faster car than the Prius.
    But that’s still at least a year away…

  • Bill Cosworth

    It is a real volt drive train.

    Just on a different shell.

    Its not the shell its the drivetrain thats imporant.

    GO GM!!

    NO MORE OIL

  • RKRB

    I lived in Hawaii years ago and the caveats in the article seem correct.

    1. Driving distances are short.
    2. Most traffic was stop-and-go, at rush hour speeds and with much idling (I biked to school, 2 miles away, and always beat a friend who drove),
    3. Relatively few people drive more in a day than a good electric car could take you on a charge (the Big Island was larger, but few people lived there),
    4. Except at high altitudes, temperatures are warm (we had a “cold” snap that got down to 55^ and a lady in our apartment was worried if her car had enough antifreeze),
    5. You didn’t need to worry about taking your car much beyond the city limits,
    6. 40 mph was considered pretty fast,
    7. Gas and diesel were considerably more expensive than in the mainland,
    8. The electric grid didn’t have much call for heating or cooling, that’s for sure.

    But that’s Hawaii, not the real world most of us live in. Expensive plug-ins might work well there, but it would be difficult to generalize for the rest of the US.
    When we were there, the instability of the volcanic substructure apparenly made geothermal impractical. Wind might work, but people go to Hawaii to look at the scenery, not at wind farms, and the strong currents might be a problem for offshore wind farms.
    I wish them luck and hope they learn something we all can use.

  • ZAP Xebra

    Whatever be the arguments against Project better place (there are some admittedly) the fact is the EVs need encouragement for more people to buy them and existing EVs on the road need somewhere that they can charge their vehicles as well. This is a well thought out progressive concept that needs to be given a chance.

  • Jon

    Flash forward 20 years… Headline reads “Hawaii first state to ban gasoline powered vehicles”. Ok, so maybe just ban new sales within the state and let them slowly thin to nothing.

    That said I think swappable batteries, or “Battery switching stations” as BW calls them, is a stupid idea doomed to failure. First we are a long long way off from a standardized battery pack that might be interchangeable between vehicles. Second in the interim having dozens of different battery designs on hand at switching stations is going to be impractical. Once again if you flash forward 20 years maybe then batteries will be generic and swappable but for now it’s pure fantasy. Frankly the “distributed storage” talk is similar fantasy for at least 10 years.

    Vehicles owners won’t let their batteries be charge cycled needlessly for the sake of distributed storage, maybe if it’s discharge was just for the benefit of their own home power needs… but not to power their neighbors house. Not until the vehicle owner neither owns nor is responsible for the battery in their vehicle.

    People getting excited about swappable batteries or distributed storage in the next few decades is laughable.

  • CHP

    Energy storage and transportation demand an environmentally sustainable secondary chemical fuel. Production and storage of a combustible fuel that is compatible with our existing energy infrastructure and engine technology. The best available answer is hydrogen.

    We no longer have to wait for fuel cells to apply hydrogen to electricity and transport because hydrogen can be used, with minor modification, in existing petrol engines. Bi-fuel conversion allows the internal combustion engine to operate on hydrogen before switching to petrol.

    This has to be the pragmatic way forward in developing low carbon transport without the costs of inventing a “fit for purpose” resource hungry, heavy electric battery (a 20th Century solution), or waiting for fuels cells to reduce in cost.

    UK’s ITM Power, have invented, patented and developed the technology (an electrolyser) to generate affordable hydrogen, at the point of demand, from renewable or nuclear electricity and water, without the use of toxic materials or harmful emissions.

  • sr

    And how do you generate the hydrogen? Through electrolysis. (30% energy loss). And then you have to compress the hydrogen to 50,000 psi etc (10% energy loss) . And then reconvert it into electricity. (50% energy loss).

    All of this energy loss is bypassed by simply putting the electricty into the battery.

    A plug-in electric car is actually 3-4 times MORE efficient than hydrogen. Hydrogen is a hoax. Less and less people are buying into it.

    President Obama has promised 1 million plug-in hybrids by 2015. Not a single mentionof hydrogen – and for good reason.

  • PJ

    Two articles I looked at estimate it will take anywhere from 8-12 hours to get a full recharge on a battery cluster. Would have to be on the charger at home every night if it were used during the day.

    Not a well thought out plan. I can just imagine two or three people hanging a round a pole for hours at a time waiting for their car to charge so they can go home. Efficient battery technologoy is 15 to 20 years off. Kind of the cart before the storm.

    Expect to pay 15-20% more for the hybrid, a skyrocket in your electric bill, a lot of inconvienance. Ever try to charge your battery at home in an hour. 25-30 amps per hour per battery. Multiply that time 8-12 batteries on a daily basis or trickle charge every day at 3-6 amps per battery.

    Statistics show that you ae 11 times more likely to die in a headon collision in a small car vs the occupants of a large vehicle. With only one life to live, I am going to be driving the biggest SUV I can find and will never drive a minicrusher.