EVEN IN COUNTRIES that tax gasoline much more heavily than the United States, the alternative of electric cars has had little success. The limited range of electric batteries and the hassle of getting them recharged have kept electric cars out of the mainstream.
Now a California company has a plan to change all that. Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place, has persuaded three countries, Hawaii, and the San Francisco Bay area to buy into his ambitious vision of an electric-car infrastructure. He calls for a system of ubiquitous plug-in charging points as well as roadside stations, much like gas stations, where motorists can switch fully-charged batteries for their depleted ones in three minutes. Agassi's plan was more appealing when gasoline cost more than $4 a gallon, but it still deserves a hearing by the incoming Obama administration. Here in Massachusetts, state officials are exploring the plan's potential, both within the state and as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 10 Northeastern states.
The genius of Agassi's proposal is the battery-switching station. With a dense network of these, electric cars could go from serving just as limited-range commuting vehicles to all-purpose family transportation. As part of Agassi's project, Renault-Nissan will produce electric car models whose batteries will be able to go more than 100 miles between charges, according to a Better Place spokesman.
But what is the gain in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions if all this battery-recharging simply means greater demand for power from electric utilities, half of which are coal-fired in the United States?
Agassi told an audience at the Museum of Science last week that the extra power required to completely displace internal combustion cars with electric cars would equal about 6 to 10 percent of a country's entire electrical load - an amount that should be achievable through renewable sources. He said wind power is strongest at night, a good match for battery recharging.
The first country to sign on with Better Place was Agassi's homeland, Israel. The infrastructure there will be fully deployed in mid-2011. Denmark, which gets 20 percent of its power from wind, and Australia have also committed to Agassi's plan. Recently, Hawaii became the first US state to join.
There would be a greater rush to adopt this plan if oil prices were still at their height. But that run-up in price was a harbinger of oil's eventual worldwide depletion. Agassi said that, before coming up with his electric plan, he had asked himself, "How do you run a country without oil?" He has come up with a proposed answer that deserves the test it will be getting.