Thursday, March 4, 2010

SF Bay's Electric Vehicle Charging Network Receives a Huge Dose of Funding

According to a recent New York Times article, the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Better Place has committed an additional $350 million to research and development for its network of charging stations for electric vehicles, such as the network under development for the Bay Area. This new investment brings Better Place's total investment in the charging station networks to nearly $1.4 billion, in addition to $200 million in federal stimulus funding earmarked specifically for California. Of this amount, $700 million has already been allocated. This funding will complete research and development on project sites in Israel and Denmark, where the Better Place charging stations are scheduled to become publicly available in early 2011. 

The Israeli-born entrepreneur and chief executive of Better Place, Shai Agassi, has framed his massive investment in the Bay Area charging network in terms of innovation and economic competitiveness:
“We’ve demonstrated that our network is deployable,” Mr. Agassi said. “We’re ready for a big breakthrough, and there is not one country that doesn’t need to get off oil.”
Often compared to early efforts by Google and Microsoft to change the world of personal computing, Better Place faces major operational hurdles to enacting its electric charging networks, most especially in the heavily auto-oriented United States. If Agassi's investments in California and other innovative regions are successful, 

"consumers would buy electric vehicles made by the big automakers but get the batteries from Better Place and pay a fee according to the distance they drive. The blueprint calls for thousands of conventional charge points, as well as switching stations where a robotic device could replace a battery in less time than it takes to fill a tank of gas. These stations are needed because batteries have a range of only about 100 miles...and recharging takes up to five hours. Changing batteries en route would make long journeys more convenient."
Major questions still remain about the source of the vehicle charging networks' electricity. If the source is a renewable fuel, such as solar, hydropower, or wind energy, the charging network has great potential for reducing the carbon emissions from personal vehicle use. However, if the source is a conventional fossil fuel, as is more likely in most countries, the net carbon savings of these electric vehicles - regardless of how commercially popular they may become - could be negligible. Furthermore, the lithium ion batteries powering new models like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt themselves have large carbon footprints involved in the mining and manufacture of their components. The impacts of these supply chain processes is still in need of intensive investigation.

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