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The Green Life: Power Up: Electric Vehicles for Everyone

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July 26, 2011

Power Up: Electric Vehicles for Everyone

ElectriccarGood news is on the way for electric car enthusiasts. Sustainable transportation start-up Better Place is creating an electric vehicle system that requires “no compromise” on the part of the driver; they want their electric cars to be as fast and long-ranging as your current fossil-fuel powered beast. To achieve this goal, Better Place functions as an “ecosystem of services” akin to a cell-phone service provider. First, you buy an electric car with integrated Better Place battery technology. Then, instead of buying minutes for your phone, you buy miles for your ride. And instead of linking up to a satellite tower, you drive to your home charger or battery switch station, power up, then roll on down the highway.  

Better Place works with the progressive Renault-Nissan Alliance to design standardized EV batteries that will plug into their cutting-edge power-up network. Batteries are the most challenging part of the electric car, partially because consumers feel what the industry calls "range anxiety;" they are afraid of running out of charge. This is the problem Better Place hopes to solve.

“If you’re just going to work then heading back home, charging overnight at home is going to get you where you need to go,” says Elaine Chang, battery strategy analyst for the Israel-based company, “The new Better Place cars will have a 22-23 kilowatt-hour battery, with a range of something like 100-120 miles. That’s totally adequate for most days.”

But many people want to venture further afield and are afraid EVs won't cut it. One solution is just making bigger batteries. "Instead of putting in a battery that runs 100 miles, you can put in a battery that runs 300 miles,” Chang says, "The pro for giant batteries is you can have a lot of horsepower, while not having to charge it as often. The problem is that they are expensive; tripling the energy capacity essentially triples the cost.”

The other solution is a network of public fast-charge stations where you can juice up on the road. But including time that it takes to let your battery cool down and then recharge, we’re talking about an hour sitting at the "pump."  These fast charging stations are expensive, too, and degrade the battery life because they use extremely high voltages, as Chang says, “Batteries don’t want to be charged this quickly. You’re forcing a chemical reaction to move faster than its natural rate.” Nevertheless, AAA just announced they will roll out a roadside assistance car for EVs, which is essentially a fast-charger on a giant truck.

So, thus far, the options are to buy an expensive battery, or wait one hour to recharge once you go past 120 miles. Better Place thinks it has a better idea; battery switching stations. Chang describes them, “So your battery is empty. Go to a switch-station, swap out your depleted battery, switch in a full battery.”  You don’t even have to get our of your car, and pilot programs in Tokyo showed that “each switch took less than a minute, on average. The experience, time-wise, is comparable to filling your tank up with gas.” Your depleted battery then is slow-charged and ready for the next customer.

Though "the environmental impact of batteries is non-trivial," with proper recycling infrastructure in place, Better Place thinks it will be more than worth it. In terms of carbon emissions, Life Cycle Analyses have shown that even if a battery is charged with the dirtiest of dirty coal, an EV still has significantly lower emissions than a similar gasoline powered car.

So when can you sign up? Widespread EV use is still a couple years off for North Americans, though Better Place is embarking on $1 billion pilot project with the San Francisco Bay Area taxis. The most exciting progress is in Israel, the birthplace of Better Place; “Launch is happening soon and the vehicles will be for sale, they’ve just announced the pricing,” says Chang, “Renault is making a huge bet on EVs; they’re launching four different models. All in one year!” Six months afterward, Better Place will introduce their EVs in Denmark.

Also on the horizon is an exciting energy management system, which will allow EVs to work with a smart grid. “When the grid is under stress, we can shut off charging at strategic points and reduce the load on the grid. In the future, bi-directional charging will be possible. Cars will be floating energy storage for the grid, which means all sorts of good things. EVs can be used to smooth out wind generation, which comes in spikes, or solar generation,” Chang continues, “It’s not far off. We’re set up to be able to do it.”

--Christa Morris

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