Energy & Environment

Electric Aloha

Hawaii's island geography makes it almost impossible to go for a long drive. If a road doesn't dead-end at a beach, then it keeps bending...
by | March 31, 2009
 

Hawaii's island geography makes it almost impossible to go for a long drive. If a road doesn't dead-end at a beach, then it keeps bending with the coast until eventually it comes right back to where it started. To Shai Agassi, this quality of total confinement makes Hawaii a perfect place to try out his bold idea for how to popularize electric cars.

Agassi, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, thinks drivers would switch to electric cars if they could buy miles in much the way mobile-phone users buy minutes. Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle thinks he's on to something. She recently invited Agassi's firm, Better Place, to wire up Hawaii for electric cars by 2012.

Agassi's vision aims to overcome the electric car's Achilles' heel -- batteries that run down after only 100 miles of driving. In Hawaii, the company will install more than 70,000 plug-in spots where subscribers can recharge while they work or shop. To make a longer trip, subscribers could stop at one of 30 stations to swap out a depleted battery for a fully charged replacement -- in less time than it takes to tank up a conventional car with gasoline.

Better Place is working with Nissan-Renault to sell electric cars that would be compatible with the system at reasonable prices. To speed the shift, Lingle is pushing legislation that would offer direct grants, starting at $4,000 next year, to help Hawaiians buy new electric cars. The legislation also would mandate that newly built homes come with battery-recharge plugs, and offer a $500 tax credit for installing such equipment.

Islands are ideal environments for Agassi's plan, but Better Place will begin operating its first pilot next year in Israel, a tiny country with a land area smaller than Hawaii's. The company also is working with Denmark, Australia and Canada, and has proposed investing $1 billion in a system for the Bay Area of California. Agassi imagines stringing charging posts and battery-exchange stations up and down Interstate 5 to connect metropolitan "transportation islands" from Seattle to San Diego.

Agassi's plan could make electric-powered vehicles a more viable option than they ever have been. But beyond metropolitan cores -- and tropical isles -- it's unlikely that many Americans will give up the free-roaming ways that gasoline-fueled cars and trucks made possible. Even inside metro areas, police cars and ambulances will need better range than batteries currently offer.

Instead of just one technology dominating the auto industry, as gas-powered engines have for a century, what's likely to emerge is a hodgepodge of alternatives. Families might own an electric car for short trips around town, but hang on to a conventional car -- powered by gasoline now and perhaps biofuels later -- for weekend expeditions and long-distance vacations. Ted Peck, director of the Hawaii state energy office, predicts that drivers who regularly travel longer distances will eventually run their cars on hydrogen fuel cells, and state officials have begun working with a natural gas utility to develop stations for refueling them. "My vision is that light vehicles will run on hydrogen or electricity," Peck says, "and heavy-duty vehicles will run on biofuels."

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