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October 31, 2014 | 7th Cheshvan 5775

Sustainability II

Galilee Diary #583, August 1, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

God placed in [the heavens] a tent for the sun, who is like a groom coming forth from his chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course. His rising-place is at one end of the heaven, and his circuit reaches the other; nothing escapes his heat.
-Psalms 19:5-7

Driving around the country these days, once encounters here and there workers installing charging stands or battery replacement stations for "Better Place," the electric car project whose primary demonstration site is Israel. Better Place has its headquarters, symbolically, in a converted tank in the decommissioned fuel tank farm at the northern entrance to Tel Aviv. There one can watch a very enthusiastic film explaining why electric cars are the future of transportation – while the CEO, Shai Agassi, preaches his truth from additional screens around the room: electric cars will make the world a "better place." Then, you can tour the facility, receiving more detailed explanations of how the system works, take a test drive, and, if you are ready, meet with a sales representative to make an order. The pitch is an interesting mixture of messianism and capitalism; as the film comes to its inspirational end, you feel guilty for not running right to the nearest sales rep. Still, I couldn't help thinking about perpetual motion machines...

To the doubters who point out to the tour guide that all of Israel's electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, the answer is that a) even so, electric cars use that energy more efficiently and allow the pollution to be concentrated and controlled; and b) as Israel converts to renewable energy, these cars will be ready to use it. To those who express concern about the 100 mile range of a battery charge, the answer is that the unique advantage of the Better Place system is a network of battery swapping stations around the country, allowing one to drive in and exchange a spent battery for a charged one in just a few minutes (using a robotic lift – the battery weighs several hundred pounds). Thus, you can plug into a charging stand whenever you are parked, and if you have no time to recharge, you drive into a battery-swapping station and just switch batteries. You buy a package of miles, and can recharge and swap batteries without limit within that total. The cost per mile ends up about 15% less than for a gasoline-powered vehicle. Of course all cars, stations, and charging stands are connected to a central computer network that controls and records power needs etc.

Mr. Agassi is a charismatic high-tech wunderkind who has raised $750 million in investment, and used up about half of it so far. There are a few hundred cars on the road today, and just in the past few months has it been possible to see charging stands being installed in public places, and swapping stations under construction. There is one model available – a sleek Renault sedan, which costs about the same as its internal combustion equivalent. There are, of course, other companies investing huge sums in alternative solutions – if someone invents a better battery in the next few years, Better Place could be in trouble with its major investment in swapping stations.

It is an impressive effort in any case, and it will be interesting to see what happens. Meanwhile, from a curmudgeonly point of view, the question arises of whether it is a good idea to envision a future based on more efficient private cars, in a small crowded country which is choked with cars already, where urban sidewalks – and sometimes rural highways – have become parking lots, where day by day we watch the green space recede as it is paved over with asphalt. Is it a given that what is good for the investors is good for the world? Are we really heading for a better place?

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