Right Time for Better Place?

by Richard T. Stuebi

Although the benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) have long been intuitively understood, EV market adoption has been limited by various issues associated with batteries.  Batteries cost too much and are too heavy/bulky, the operating range an EV is too short, and there’s no convenient way to recharge batteries with the speed and ubiquity of filling up a gas tank.

Well, there’s a lot of money being invested in many companies to address the first set of issues concerning battery cost and performance.  However, there hasn’t generally been a lot of attention paid to the question of how excellent/cheap batteries will get recharged – even though the lack of a solution on this issue would completely nullify the value of any progress on battery technologies for EVs.

Enter a company called Better Place.

Having secured $350 million of new investment in early 2010, led by HSBC (London: HSBA), Palo Alto-based Better Place is developing proprietary technology and installing infrastructure to streamline the process by which electric vehicle (EV) owners recharge batteries.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the research and testing facility for Better Place, which is located just north of Tel Aviv in Israel.  At this facility, Better Place allows visitors to test-drive a near-production prototype EV made by Renault (Euronext:  RNO), with whom Better Place is working closely.  It’s a fun exercise to gun an air conditioned mid-size five-passenger sedan up to 60 mph in a few seconds with no transmission shifts and virtually no sound, although Better Place has virtually nothing to do with the EV or the battery within it.

More interestingly, the facility lets future would-be EV drivers interface with how the battery pack would be recharged – if the vision of Better Place gets adopted.

Better Place envisions that EV drivers would buy a monthly subscription to Better Place recharging services.  At parking spaces hosted by Better Place, there is a post about one meter in height, in which is embedded a retractable cord to plug into the EV for battery recharging while the car is parked.  The retractable cord is unlocked by an electronic key card that the Better Place subscriber waves in front of the charging post.  (I wish I had asked what happens if a non-subscriber occupies a Better Place parking spot, or if a user forgets to disconnect their EV from the charging cord before driving away.)

This is all well and good for commuters or around-towners that have ample parked-car time for a recharge, but Better Place also has a solution to the EV challenge of quick recharging for long-distance trips.  Better Place has developed a service station design involving robotic arms in underground bays to reach under a parked EV, extract the depleted battery, and replace it with a fully-charged battery – all within a couple minutes. Thus, an EV-driver can be back on the road as quickly as refilling a gas tank, without even having to get out of the car.

Additionally, Better Place is developing software to facilitate vehicle-to-grid (V2G) utilization, wherein the customer would enable the EV’s batteries to sell power back to the grid during high-value peak periods.  Each customer would set his/her own parameters as to when Better Place would allow the grid to tap the EVs batteries for resale to the grid:  some customers would be willing to save (or even make) a few dollars by letting the grid utilize the EV for power supply pretty much anytime, whereas other customers wouldn’t want to risk depleting the EV batteries (and hence EV range) for any price.

The Better Place business model has many interesting and compelling aspects to it – recurring revenues, different price points and subscription packages – but it has one very scary element:  there is no avoiding its capital intensity.

In essence, Better Place strives to become an unregulated utility, with massive infrastructure deployment in its parking recharge posts and service stations.  Better Place needs to gain sufficient critical mass of customers in relatively dense geographic areas in order for the infrastructure investments to pay off.  Over time, Better Place can stitch together multiple clusters into pan-reginoal and eventually national ubiquity.

Although smart money is making a big bet on Better Place, only time will tell.  Be on the lookout for a Better Place regional pilot taxi program in the San Francisco Bay Area in early 2011.

11 replies
  1. Tim Pozza
    Tim Pozza says:

    A Better Place captured my attention some time ago yet well on the heels of the big push for hydrogen going on in the late 1990s while both U.S. and Canadian federal government agreed on and funded ethanol expansion.

    Battery changes don't suit the U.S. funded lithium polymer battery capacity expansion end-use designs, for a start. And that's just a start.

    For me, A Better Place best represents an alternative model which is best to contemplate and argue over while discounting battery replacements as the business model that would ultimately be adopted. In many ways the haggling that's going on, and the support for this red herring of a V2G holy grail will leave in its wake the real expected outcome: a broadly-based higher priced electricity in North America. Better Place may do well in Israel and the Netherlands where it has its core support, but there too are smaller derivative markets to the major master players and designs which have the true impact on fuel policy and, as a result, greenhouse gas reduction.

    Long drives are not the only scenario. Face it, you're going to travel somewhere and want to stay for a while. Consider that 80 per cent of the people reading this went somewhere and likely stayed overnight during any of the holidays since Thanksgiving in the U.S. If the trip was anywhere near the end of the charge for their battery, they probably, a; didn't want to sit in a parking lot to use Smart Meters that are part of a public charging infrastructure 2 miles from their destination. No they most likely would have preferred to use the time available attending with Mom and Dad the fluffing up of pillows in the spare room for the grandkids. This scenario is a fundamental — almost genetic, though I shudder to say it — part of North American car culture. The freedom to travel and connect over great distances, and in an electric vehicle future of any description, also requiring at-home charging convenience. This is also supported behaviorally by the sans-solar input designs of vehicles in a V2G scenario where the derivatives of free time accord only a subset of those with charging stations of their own to keep a vehicle at a meter they own (otherwise vehicle identity would supplant — and, really, before V2G, it should, on the basis of social justice, higher priced electricity for mobility and the resultant lessening of the burden on household energy expenses). BTW, when you think about it this way, the success of the motor vehicle choking out its own market and tearing into sustainable urban public transportation options in the peak times then brings the cost of operation and the number of vehicles on roads into parity. With vehicle identity, billing agent justification, and higher priced electricity for mobility-destined electricity, taxation of mobility matches our current way. I personally believe it would be folly to give in to the belief public plug in infrastructure and the resultant increase in electricity rates will at all refresh the grid

  2. Tim Pozza
    Tim Pozza says:

    or expand its Smart capabilities. These are industrial sales quotas increasing utility efficiency and NERC compliance, not broad based price increases. And, finally, b; well, the b is that in contemplating Better Place, portable and stationary power, and in looking at companies such as Genesis Fuel Tech, Ballard, General Hydrogen, the smart phone revolution, and even carbon burning, it seems apparent, to me at least, that the way forward on the 2025 plan to 50 per cent market penetration by hydrogen powered vehicles is being maintained. Having said that, however, I think we can do better. So Better Place, in my mind, leads to interesting outcomes when you consider hydrogen (as ethanol and/or liquefied syngas/carbon pipelined recombinations) in stationary power use and the micro-portable power market. Does anyone remember the days of butane canisters? Many of the modern hydrogen patents include micro-DMFC designs and proprietary ceramic catalysts. You may have notices the motor vehicle isn't included. Nor is sequestration. I personally think the vehicle should be electric and nothing but — even pickups and especially cancer alley diesel locomotives… I mean, umm, large cars or transports. There really is no excuse. None. Otherwise you'll have to argue estrogen with me while you tell me I lived longer than I should have because of the convenience made possible by pollution (an argument which no longer holds true, BTW). So, as mobility becomes electric, the fossil industry takes returns on any micro-portable dual-chambered injection canister, and stationary power moves to reform of said bio-mass or cyanobacteria-based source giving, in essence, base load generating to the fossil fuel industry instead of to nuclear. And on nuclear, I would say no, as my word to those of you who have never worked in that industry and who support its being cast as a renewable energy worldwide, here in Canada by the last incarnation of the federal Liberals in power. I believe it was Perin Beattie who was tasked with announcing this wonderful nuclear news.

    On Northern Gateway and the potential for hydrocarbon-based chemistry reductions and the creation of a better industry from SWO-chemistry and the piping of deep sea water for industrial and agricultural use (agricultural where food and fuel meet), to lay the groundwork for an alignment of interests in real human problems on the horizon where they intersect with lines of everlasting business (energy), I can only hope you have some idea. You might consider carrying these views to government, but especially asking those not-for-profits such as Pembina and others to get off their duffs, liaise with this energy giant and produce the alternate version presented only marginally here and win that $5 B for the right reasons. Who is ready to produce and submit this full-fledged business plan to the corporate powers to prove the financial worth of cyanobacteria and desalination complexed with ethanol and the need for base load to move to reform technologies. Apparently, only well heeled Oakville can fight off pipelines and combined cycle, while Holland Marsh farmers are merely able to muck about in their boots rather than carry any political weight to retain productive agricultural lands.

    I doubt very much that Terra Power is the best interrim solution. Why wait for the build and certification when the need for water is greatest and device sequestration in stationary is hooked into the energy delivery mechanism. Recombine or burn existing source.

    There are unfinished elements, too. Multi-residence buildings in large uban centres house up to 50 per cent of residents. Is there a preference registry for those who wish to signal the desire to purchase electric that remains independent of the auto industry? If this is tracked perhaps it will be possible to successfully install device or vehicle identity based external metering and offer the variable mobility rate to urban dwellers where the separation of income and opportunity has become apparent by neighborhood statistics. Can we really afford broad based increases through the red herring of V2G and possibly corporate scavenging of a public plug in infrastructure that does not in its contract agreement give back to grid development or improvement?

    It's been a fun ramble… for me.

    I'll leave you with the idea that the Measurement Canada decision on Smart Metering entrenches a restriction to vehicle identity. This is because firmware updates to Smart Meters which may effect upgrades allowing multiple identities to pass through a single Smart Meter for later justification by the billing agent can't be done in compliance with register justification against interval usage (algorithmic estimation of missing peak time usage data).

    I'm just sayin'.

    I'm not asleep. I'm just not at the wheel.

  3. Tim Pozza
    Tim Pozza says:

    expand its Smart capabilities. These are industrial sales quotas increasing utility efficiency and NERC compliance, not broad based price increases. And, finally, b; well, the b is that in contemplating Better Place, portable and stationary power, and in looking at companies such as Genesis Fuel Tech, Ballard, General Hydrogen, the smart phone revolution, and even carbon burning, it seems apparent, to me at least, that the way forward on the 2025 plan to 50 per cent market penetration by hydrogen powered vehicles is being maintained. Having said that, however, I think we can do better. So Better Place, in my mind, leads to interesting outcomes when you consider hydrogen (as ethanol and/or liquefied syngas/carbon pipelined recombinations) in stationary power use and the micro-portable power market. Does anyone remember the days of butane canisters? Many of the modern hydrogen patents include micro-DMFC designs and proprietary ceramic catalysts. You may have notices the motor vehicle isn't included. Nor is sequestration. I personally think the vehicle should be electric and nothing but — even pickups and especially cancer alley diesel locomotives… I mean, umm, large cars or transports. There really is no excuse. None. Otherwise you'll have to argue estrogen with me while you tell me I lived longer than I should have because of the convenience made possible by pollution (an argument which no longer holds true, BTW). So, as mobility becomes electric, the fossil industry takes returns on any micro-portable dual-chambered injection canister, and stationary power moves to reform of said bio-mass or cyanobacteria-based source giving, in essence, base load generating to the fossil fuel industry instead of to nuclear. And on nuclear, I would say no, as my word to those of you who have never worked in that industry and who support its being cast as a renewable energy worldwide, here in Canada by the last incarnation of the federal Liberals in power. I believe it was Perin Beattie who was tasked with announcing this wonderful nuclear news.

    On Northern Gateway and the potential for hydrocarbon-based chemistry reductions and the creation of a better industry from SWO-chemistry and the piping of deep sea water for industrial and agricultural use (agricultural where food and fuel meet), to lay the groundwork for an alignment of interests in real human problems on the horizon where they intersect with lines of everlasting business (energy), I can only hope you have some idea. You might consider carrying these views to government, but especially asking those not-for-profits such as Pembina and others to get off their duffs, liaise with this energy giant and produce the alternate version presented only marginally here and win that $5 B for the right reasons. Who is ready to produce and submit this full-fledged business plan to the corporate powers to prove the financial worth of cyanobacteria and desalination complexed with ethanol and the need for base load to move to reform technologies. Apparently, only well heeled Oakville can fight off pipelines and combined cycle, while Holland Marsh farmers are merely able to muck about in their boots rather than carry any political weight to retain productive agricultural lands.

    I doubt very much that Terra Power is the best interrim solution. Why wait for the build and certification when the need for water is greatest and device sequestration in stationary is hooked into the energy delivery mechanism. Recombine or burn existing source.

    There are unfinished elements, too. Multi-residence buildings in large uban centres house up to 50 per cent of residents. Is there a preference registry for those who wish to signal the desire to purchase electric that remains independent of the auto industry? If this is tracked perhaps it will be possible to successfully install device or vehicle identity based external metering and offer the variable mobility rate to urban dwellers where the separation of income and opportunity has become apparent by neighborhood statistics. Can we really afford broad based increases through the red herring of V2G and possibly corporate scavenging of a public plug in infrastructure that does not in its contract agreement give back to grid development or improvement?

    It's been a fun ramble… for me.

    I'll leave you with the idea that the Measurement Canada decision on Smart Metering entrenches a restriction to vehicle identity. This is because firmware updates to Smart Meters which may effect upgrades allowing multiple identities to pass through a single Smart Meter for later justification by the billing agent can't be done in compliance with register justification against interval usage (algorithmic estimation of missing peak time usage data).

    I'm just sayin'.

    I'm not asleep. I'm just not at the wheel.

  4. doc3osh
    doc3osh says:

    I didn't read all of Tim Pozza's doctoral thesis, but I think he's missing a few points. The Better Place model is based on the cellphone: Just as in the early days we had to look at "coverage maps" where cellphones had coverage, nowadays Better Place customers would look at maps of where the battery-swap stations are. And just as the cellphone was originally a second phone (and a luxury), so Better Place cars will initially be your second car (whereas now, many of us no longer need a landline. When the cellphone first came out, no one could have managed without also having a landline.) The V2Grid aspect is not at all fundamental to the business plan; it's just a way to try to limit the drain on the electric grid. Besides Israel and the Netherlands, Better Place is making major strides in Hawaii, Tokyo and Australia– places where it's possible to cover all the areas people drive with battery swap stations. They are working with Taxis and have already made Tokyo a demonstration city of Taxis using battery-swap stations. San Francisco has agreed to be next to try it. Because Taxis have limited "coverage areas", their model works for taxis even better than for private cars. Even if they ONLY succeed with taxis, where the model clearly makes sense, they will have made a significant contribution. My guess is they will succeed with private cars as well.

  5. doc3osh
    doc3osh says:

    Mr. Steubi,
    It is exceedingly unlikely that these cars– which are specifically built for use with Better Place technology– will be able to drive away with the cord plugged in.

  6. Mike M.
    Mike M. says:

    Pozza: Truly, sir, you have a dizzying intellect. If only it had some sense of where it was heading — or was not so cosmically capable of self-distraction — then it might go on to accomplish things. Your contorted lattice-work of parentheticals and sidebars notwithstanding, you seem to have missed the entire point of Better Place. It ain't about the V2G stuff. Want to debunk that part, just for fun? Take the aggregate number of automobiles in service in the State of California today, assign some modest per-battery kW figure to each, and do the math. I'll wager it's less than the capacity of a single natural gas peaker plant in the PG&E network. We're talking rounding errors in the gargantuan calculus of the average public utility. So: Don't get distracted. Stock touts and futurists invent concepts like "V2G" and lemmings start repeating it like it's real, plausible, and imminent in the arrival. No such thing.

    Meantime, Better Place should be seen (and evaluated) for what it *actually is*, which is a novel infrastructural approach to some of EV's most vexing challenges: affordability, convenience and range. Ironically, the use case you conjure up actually argues for Better Place pretty well. On your putative road trip to grandma's, the EV owner would have pulled into a Better Place service station, swapped his battery in a matter of minutes, and been back on the road faster than you can finish two verses of "To Grandmother's House We Go." The innovation is in the Better Place model, which *releases* you, oh tortured, would-be EV-preneur, from the tyranny of today's battery-borne limitations, not to mention the obligation to shell out fantastic amounts of upfront cash for your shiny new EV. You purchase vehicle miles, not a car. You subscribe to a service called "get me and mine from A to B, cleanly, affordably, and conveniently." That may be, yes, capital intensive. But it's a big, well-conceived, stunningly ballsy bet in an otherwise timid — and, with your comments above as testimony, entirely too self-involved — industry. I'd say "Spin the wheel. Well wagered."

    I'm just commenting…

  7. @rebelclause
    @rebelclause says:

    I would agree V2G ain't happening. The idea, as I've understood its development, is about intermittent or off-peak storage for use on-peak, which, really, is a contradictary. It's a behavioral contradiction. Better Place, as Mr. Stuebi points out, may be working out the kinks in software to support V2G, but who will be plugged in at peak time while in transit during those time frames — to and from work. Even with a portion of each time slice available to sell electricity to the grid from a motor vehicle, without a home charging station and having to pay the peak time rate for the electric range, it is unlikely people will decide it is in their interests. The only advantage of considering V2G (and dropping the model) is that it depends on a motor vehicle having electricity stored in its battery that to discharge it and bill against this would require co-metering of the device and the vehicle. To me this suggests it is entirely possible to have one meter for each neighborhood which identifies the device and its location and bills the dumb meter owner. Smart Meters have paved the way for higher cost electricity and pole servers which could do as I describe but sold to consumers as a fuzzy feel good way of using Internet to remember to turn off the lights at their home should they in future purchase a smart lighting device.

    I love the economy in all this. It's creative and it makes the ecology very diverse. I would maybe even be more amenable than I am now if silicon production were a domestic affair at all. But the Pacific Rim has that in the majority since 2002.

    Before I go, I should point out that I am not against Smart Meters. I am for co-metering and advanced (very complex) billing. Since, to me, Smart Meters pave the way for expensive, restaurant priced home cooked meals at peak time, and the alternative as described was not explored, it is too late to complain about how the wool has been pulled over your eyes. Perhaps, when you take a step back, you'll realize that to use any built public charging station does require immediate payment. And the contracts written by the municipalities allowing these stations to be built do not include payback to any kind of renewal fund. For the consumer there is no float by the utility here as there is with electricity on a monthly basis. I would say that's a good thing. And that it's roughly the same as with gasoline paid for immediately or with credit held by an independent financial institution. Identity is extremely important. It's the difference, in my mind, between what's included in service and what's not. In the public charge scenario or V2G identity remains separate from the vehicle. Payment is a third party affair where credit or debit is concerned. Communication as an included service, however, is a different matter. GM's OnStar represents human communication for a price. Both Nissan and GM allow for device communication as part of that subscription, but communication for safety and police enforcement is always on. The convergence of identify is bypassed here where the provider of service elects to prevent two lines of business from becoming one. As electricity pricing increases, the monthly float also increases, which would make it difficult at best for public utilities who already deal with disconnection for non-payment to justify increasing the financial exposure of customers by floating their mobility as well — or being morally obliged to consider floating mobility in the event of default.

    I think any people reading the original post, my comments, and the responses, have to agree a fixed maximum mileage will always be how motor vehicles work. V2G fails on storage partly for that reason – along with the peak availability during which you may sell and use more expensive electricity depending on whether you yourself have access to the grid and the kVAs in your neighborhood (just as with renewable energy installations) to support the bi-directional draw. It's the fixed mileage aspect, too, that places the onus on vehicle manufacturers, public utilities, electrical engineers and municipal planners, to fully support household and/or workplace (employee) plug ins and get off the privatization of the grid where it doesn't support renewal in any way financially other than to encourage complexity and influence the increase of electricity pricing.

    TOU could co-exist quite easily with variable-rate for so categorized devices. And I believe it is in the best interests for everyone to move this way. I wonder what anyone reading this might think about the cost of electricity in under serviced areas in the U.S. under the rural cooperatives relative to the earning power of people living rural. In Ontario, it seems only phone service doesn't reach certain communities, or, at least, that's the way it was before TelSat. Does anyone think that creating a complex product environment, privatizing electricity distribution, and shaping the grid to reflect these very lucrative ideas doesn't also promote phantom power leeching and, more importantly, the need for rural urbanization where the wealth to afford these things needs to be created?

    You get me silicon production plants across Canada. I'll support the way you want to do Smart Metering.

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  1. […] batteries with fully-charged batteries at service stations, as Better Place is aiming to offer (about which I’ve blogged in the past).  Alas, it will be difficult for the industry to come up with standards as uniform and widespread […]

  2. […] batteries with fully charged batteries at service stations, as Better Place is aiming to offer (about which I’ve blogged in the past).  Alas, it will be difficult for the industry to come up with standards as uniform and widespread […]

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