Better Place is alive, but not well

A Better Place battery switching station
A Better Place battery switching station

I’m driving a Better Place Renault Fluence all-electric car from Tel Aviv to a kibbutz in the northern Negev, about a 60-mile trip. I can’t decide whether to keep my eyes on the road, on the GPS system to make sure I don’t miss my exit or on the data flowing out of my 22 kWh  battery, telling me how much electricity I’m using at any given moment, how much remains and how much, in theory, I’ll have left when I reach my destination. A wrong turn or two, and I could run out of juice–and without an internal combustion engine in the car, a nearby gas station will be no help at all.

Suddenly, I understand “range anxiety.” Breathe slowly and deeply, I tell myself, trying to recall a meditation DVD I’d listened to a few days before.

Eventually, I relaxed and, by the time I’d made it to the kibbutz and back to Tel Aviv, I’d thoroughly enjoyed the trip. The Renault all-electric car ran smoothly, and silently, and it was fun to drive.. The ingenious, fully-automated battery-switching technology that the company has designed to make long-distance driving easier worked (almost) flawlessly. Better Place’s customer service, which I called upon on couple of times, was first-rate.

Having said that, Better Place appears to be running out of gas, er, electricity, well, actually, money and time. That’s a shame. This is a very cool company that set out to change the world. [click to continue…]

COP15: Nothing shy about Shai

Shai Agassi has a deal for you.

Shai is the founder and CEO of Better Place, the audacious electric car startup based in Palo Alto, CA, that not only wants to change the way cars are powered but the way they are sold.

Here’s his offer: Pay about $12,000 for a family-sized all-electric sedan made by Renault, known as the Fluence EV. Drive as much as you want. Pay $300 a month for all the electricity you need (or less if you drive fewer miles). Emit no CO2 or other pollutants. And help the world break its addiction to oil.

Sounds  good, doesn’t it?

There’s just one catch: To get the deal, at least anytime soon, you’ll have to move to Denmark or Israel–where Better Place plans to launch in 2011.

The all-electric Renault Valence
The all-electric Renault Fluence EV

Yesterday afternoon, I took a ride in the Renault Fluence EV and sat down with Shai in Copenhagen, where Renault and Better Place have teamed up to offer test drives for the first time. Since Shai unveiled Better Place early in 2007, auto industry insiders have scoffed at his plans. He’s a Silicon Valley guy, a former hotshot at software giant SAP, with no auto industry experience. A 41-year-old Israel-born enterpreneur, he has a lot of chutzpah and he can come across as glib. Skeptics say Better Place, like much of the electric car industry, is deliver more talk than action.

But guess what? Better Place is starting to look very real. It’s also starting to look like a  big missed opportunity for the American automakers.

Better Place has already placed an order for 100,000 cars with Renault. Agassi plans to order another 100,000 cars in the first half of 2012.

I won’t explain the Better Place business model here except to say that the company is a service provider, akin to a mobile phone company. Just as mobile phone companies discount their hardware and make money by selling minutes after building a network of towers, Better Place will build out a network infrastructure of charging stations and battery-switching facilities for its cars, sell the cars at or below cost and then make money by selling electricity. You will own the car, they will own and maintain the battery. Watch the video below if this is the first time you are reading about the company.

The economic model works, at least in theory, because electric cars are fundamentally more efficient and cheaper to operate than gas-powered ones. It works especially well in Europe where gas is heavily taxed and costs at least $7 a gallon. And it works best of all in Denmark, which imposes a whopping 200% taxes on new cars–so a car that retails for $20,000 sells for $60,000—that is waived for electric cars.

Denmark is also a good match for electric cars because so much of its electricity comes from renewable sources. As The New York Times recently reported:

Dong Energy, Better Place’s partner and the biggest utility in Denmark, wants to power the anticipated fleet of electric cars with wind energy, which already supplies nearly 20 percent of the country’s power.

With Better Place and the smart grid working together, cars would charge up as the winds blow at night, when power demand is lowest. Charging would soak up the utility’s extra power and sharply shrink the carbon footprint of electric vehicles.

Better Place is also rolling out rapidly in Israel — which wants to get its economy off oil for obvious reasons, and would love to see the rest of the world do the same. Agassi has agreements with governments to roll out Better Place in northern California, in the urban regions of Australia and in Hawaii. France, too, has made a major commitment to electric vehicles, one reason why Renault says it will launch four electric car models in the next several years.

Shai Agassi
Shai Agassi

Government backing for electric cars is crucial, just as government policy was needed to unleash private capital to create the Internet industry and mobile telephony. Today, Israeli President Shimon Peres was scheduled to hold a news conference today in Copenhagen to promote Better Place.

“What we’ve seen in Israel is that the president of the country wanted to get it done,” Agassi said. “In Denmark, the minister of climate, Connie Hedegaard, said let’s move forward, and they did.”

By contrast, Agassi has run into dead ends in Detroit and Washington.

“Most car companies looked at us an anomaly,” he says. “Not a competitor. Nor an ally. Because we’re not a car company and we’re not a supplier. In the car industry you’re either a supplier or competitor. We’re an enabler, but it’s an industry that did not have enablers.”

Besides, automakers had other things to worry about. “Most of these companies have gone through a massive, massive change,” Agassi says. “Some of them have changed CEOs. Some of them have changed CEOs twice. Most of them have government cash infusions.”

Still, he notes that Chrysler dropped its plans for an electric when it restructured after getting government aid. “How is that good for the taxpayer,” he asks.

Agassi says the cost of building a network of charging stations and battery-switching facilities comes to no more than between $40 and $75 a car.

“At a cost of $40 per car in our country, we can get off oil,” he says. “It’s a crime not to do it.”

Below are photos from Renault of the Fluence and the Kangoo, an electric van, as well as a couple of photos I took of a cute little single-seat EV for urban driving called the Twizy. Below the photos is the explanatory video about Better Place.

Renault Fluence EV
Renault Fluence EV
Renault Kangoo EV
Renault Kangoo EV
Renault Twizy concept car
Renault Twizy concept car
Renault Twizy concept car
Renault Twizy concept car

They said it at Brainstorm Green

FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green began Monday afternoon (less than 24 hours ago as I write this) and my head has been spinning ever since. We’ve talked about Washington and the politics of climate change, Andy Serwer did a a great interview with Bill Ford, and I had a relaxed conversation with Paul Hawken during dinner that generated lots of nice buzz. This morning, we’ve done panels on nuclear power and cars. I can’t keep up with it all—you can find lots of coverage, including video, at I’m about to interview execs for a panel that we are calling Green Superpowers—GE, Wal-Mart and IBM. For now, I’m just going to dump some quotes from my laptop into this blog to give you a flavor for what’s going on.

Better Place’s Shai Agassi, the dynamic electric-car entrepreneur who is making headway in Israel, Denmark, Hawaii and San Francisco: “If you’re wiling to give me what you pay for gasoline, I’ll give you a free (electric) car.” Electric cars will be dramatically more efficient that gas-powered ones as battery costs come down, he argues

Bill Ford, chairman of Ford, on the history of the auto industry: “We haven’t had a lot of revolutions but boy are we now. I love it.”

More from Ford, on how times have changed: “When I joined the (Ford) board, I was asked to stop affiliating w/ known or suspected environmentalists.” Ford now works with Paul Hawken and Environmental Defense Fund.

Hawken, on why a small-is-beautiful guy has agreed to advise Wal-Mart and Ford on sustainability: “I’m a slut for change.”

Ford to Ian Clifford CEO of Zenn Motors, an electric-car startup: “You guys are leading the charge, so to speak!” Ford really won over the crowd with his low-key charm.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, yet another electric car fan: “I believe the electric car will be one of the great areas of breakthrough that will change our industry.

More from Darbee: “The smart grid will be the key enabling technology for the electric cars.”

Peter Corsell, CEO of GridPoint, on the smart grid: “Current system was designed in an era when information was scarce, fuel was cheap and pollution was free.”

David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, another utility guy who likes electric cars: “The electric car is our savior, It is the air conditioner of the 21st century.”

Alan Hanson, exec vp of nuclear power company Areva, saying concerns about nuclear waste are way overblown: “I don’t know of any part of the electricity generating world that treats its waste as well as the nuclear industry does.”

More from Crane: “I’m convinced that there will e three nuclear power plants built in the U.S. in the next 10 years.” Whether they will be anomalies (supported by a limited pool of federal loan guarantees) or lead to a nuclear renaissance remains to be seen.

Crane, explaining why there is no political constituency for nuclear energy in Washington, where Waxman, Boxer and Browner are anti-nuke but eager to accommodate the coal industry: “Right now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party knows they need to accommodate the coal wing of the Democratic Party in order to get energy and environmental policy passed.”

More to come when I can come up for air….and I hope to dig into the nuclear issue in a more thoughtful way within a week or so. I’m convinced that environmentalists need to think anew about nuclear, in light of new circumstances and the threat of climate change.