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Electric Car Debuts in Israel Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
May 10, 2008

An American-Israeli start-up entrepreneur has been given the green light to turn this country into a model for the rest of the world by enabling it to power its automobiles by means of lithium-ion batteries instead of gasoline, thereby protecting the natural environment and reducing dependence on imported petroleum.

Shai Agassi, 38, who made his name in California's Silicon Valley, won an endorsement from Israel's President Shimon Peres, to put electrical cars to be made by France's Renault and Japan's Nissan on Israel's roads/ "Today is a new age with new dangers and the greatest danger is that of oil," Peres said, hailing Agassi's initiative.  "It is the greatest polluter of our age and oil is the greatest financier of terror."

But some local experts are skeptical. "The major problem is the battery," said Amit Mor, CEO of ECO Energy, an Israeli financial and strategic consulting firm.  He said the requisite Lithium-Ion battery must hold a charge for at least 100 miles, a capability which still is beyond contemporary automotive technology.

"Less than that would not be practical," he went on, basing his analysis on statements made here by Carlos Ghosn, Renault's president and CEO who was here to inaugurate the project.   Bearing in mind local weather conditions, Mor pointed out that the demand on the electrical cars' batteries will be increased by the need for air conditioning at least half of every year.

Agassi's locally-based firm, Better Place, intends to set up half a million battery recharge outlets and 5,000 battery replacement stations all over the country.  The plug-in facilities will be similar to curbside parking meters. Mor described the installation of these plug-in points as "a major infrastructural undertaking." The switch to electricity will begin in 2011 when the first batch of zero-emission cars is due for delivery.
 
Here too, Mor and other experts have serious reservations. "Our biggest problem is global warming, "Mor said. "If we continue to use coal to generate electricity to meet the additional demand created by electrical automobiles, the generating plants' carbon dioxide emissions will aggravate this problem." Instead of coal, he recommends renewable energy sources as solar power or wind, nothing that nuclear power and natural gas are alternatives.
 
Tax initiatives granted by Israel's government would make the electrically-powered, zero-emission cars cost less than conventionally-fueled ones.  This requires that government reduce its excise taxes on automobiles from 70 to 10 per cent of the sale price during a 20-year period -- until the overwhelming majority of Israeli's tow million or more cars are electrical.

At the same time, these vehicles will have to travel at the same speeds and will have the same acceleration rates as conventional vehicles. The lithium-ion batteries, which are expensive, will be rented by the car buyers as are cellular telephones.  They will enable drivers to travel up to 160,000 miles per battery before requiring replacement.  Installation of new batteries will be done at the 5,000 stations meant for this purpose and will take no longer than the time necessary to fill a tank of gasoline.

Drivers also will be able to plug into special electrical sockets at home or at their places of employment for recharges.  This would be necessary after traveling an average of 250 miles in city or highway conditions.  
 
(MOR doubts that the electrically-powered vehicles' range will exceed 100 miles.) "The nationwide recharge grid will be suitable for other countries interested in having electricity-powered cars," said Arie Tulman, vice president of Aran Research, an industrial design firm cooperating with Better Place on the zero-emission car project.

This joint venture is being undertaken by Agassi with Ofer Idan, an Israeli industrialist, who invested $100 million.  The total financial input in the initial stage will be $200 million.  Idan, who heads the Israel Corporation, a Tel Aviv-based conglomerate, reportedly wants to extend this technology to China and India.  "Their pollution is killing them and the rest of us too," he said.  He described the air in Mumbai, India, as so murky that visibility often is almost nil.
 
Israel's ministry of transport is favorably-disposed to Agassi's initiative, "it has to be examined," said Avner Ovadia, the ministry's spokesman.  "Several committees have been set up to make the requisite evaluation."  The lithium-ion batteries were upgraded at Agassi's Project Better Place facilities in California. 

Mor stressed that Israel's trucks and buses will not be included in the projected changeover to electrically-powered vehicles. "They will continue to burn diesel fuel and other petroleum products." 


 

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