Making Hawaii A Better Place: Electric Cars Are In Our Future

  Better Place Car

On December 2nd, 2008, the State of Hawaii and Hawaiian Electric Company announced a partnership with the private company, Better Place, to introduce a model for clean energy in transportation: Zero-emission battery-powered electric vehicles. The partnership is just one of the elements that makes up the energy mosaic of the HCEI.

Better Place describes itself as a mobility operator that aims to reduce oil dependence by delivering personal transportation as a sustainable service. The company was launched by entrepreneur Shai Agassi in 2007 with $200 million in venture capital with the goal of building electric vehicle networks powered by renewable energy to provide consumers with an affordable and sustainable means of travel.

Better Place already has agreements to build new infrastructure networks in Israel, Denmark, Australia, and California, and the first visionary projects will become reality in 2010. The company expects its Maui infrastructure to be up and running by 2012, according to the company’s spokesman for Global Development, Pete Cooper.

In a recent presentation made to a working group of the Maui County Energy Alliance, a task force set up by the County’s Office of Economic Development, Cooper explained that the company’s business model calls for consumers to subscribe to transportation as a service, similar to cell phone service today. At the heart of the new paradigm is sophisticated in-vehicle software that constantly analyzes energy levels, capacity, location and range, and can even plan re-charging when off-peak power rates apply.

Cooper also told the group that car manufacturers will make the electric cars that plug into Better Place “smart” charging stations and battery-swap stations. “For example, Renault-Nissan are already developing a line of electric cars for Better Place, and other auto makers are following suit,” he said. A prototype, the Nissan Rogue, made its public debut in Honolulu in December.

Consumers will purchase vehicles (it is expected they will cost significantly less than comparable gas-fueled cars, according to Cooper) while Better Place will own the rechargeable batteries. Consumers will then lease the batteries and purchase the electricity to keep them charged, in the same way that they now buy gas at service stations.

In addition to “smart” charging at home and at stations that will blanket each community, electric car drivers will also be able to switch out depleted batteries at designated Better Place exchange stations. “The batteries, which contain no heavy metals, are designed for a 200,000 mile lifetime,” said Cooper, “and a complete re-charge will take no more than 15 minutes.” The company has already identified a number of exchange station locations that will service Maui County.

The Better Place model makes a compelling example of economic and environmental shift. Electric cars will create new jobs while a sustainable infrastructure benefits the environment and opens up new markets for renewable energy. The troubled auto industry is also expected to benefit from this viable new business.

Best of all, the mega-million dollar outflow from Maui to foreign countries for gasoline and diesel fuel will begin to be substituted by home-grown, renewable sources of transportation energy. “It’s the ideal win-win for everyone,” says Better Place’s Pete Cooper. An additional benefit to the community is that the network of electric vehicle batteries hold the potential for providing the island with an emergency source of power through the “smart” charging interface, should the need ever arise.