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Green Wheels: Plugging in with help from an oil billionaire

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JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — I'm in Israel on my second visit in as many months, and I'm riding in an electric car on a conveyer belt through what gives every impression of being a car wash. But there's no soap, and the car doesn't clean. Instead, my car, which has about 65 percent of its charge left after a fast run from Jerusalem, is getting its battery swapped.

Welcome to Better Place, the company headed by Israeli-born Shai Agassi five years ago that has made its mission not only to wire the world for electric cars, but to do it with a unique twist — battery swapping. The concept is simple enough: Instead of relying solely on charging stations that take six hours or so to juice up an EV, the company adds the option of swapping the battery in an automated process that takes about five minutes.

Instead of buying a battery car and then figuring out how to charge it — public stations, home unit? — BP is a one-stop transportation solution. In Israel, customers buy "electric miles," paying BP roughly $32,000 for the a Renault Fluence Z.E. (the only car with switchable batteries) than leasing the battery and a charging plan that gives them access to the company's public network and the swap stations. It may not work this way, but the general rule of thumb is that you'd use home or public charging for commuting and errands, battery swapping for longer trips.

Denmark is the other country being Better-Place equipped. Johnny Hansen, CEO of Better Place Denmark, said that his country is "two to three months behind Israel." Hundreds of charging stations are installed, he said, and 20 swap stations will be running by the end of the year. Denmark has only five million people, so it's a good small-scale test bed for Better Place.

Denmark is serious about going green. It's already at least 25 percent wind-driven, and seeks a 40 percent cut in carbon dioxide (from 1990 levels) by 2020. It wants to generate 50 percent of its electricity from wind by 2020, and 100 percent from renewable energy by 2035. Transportation is supposed to be 100 percent sustainable by 2050.

China hasn't signed up for Better Place yet, but the company is in serious talks there, and is looking for an automaker to provide cars with switchable batteries. China, as Israel's richest man, Idan Ofer, told me, is a ripe prospect for Better Place. Ofer, who made his money operating Israel's biggest oil refinery (among other businesses), is now making amends with a big role in Better Place. Ofer is chairman of Better Place, and his company, Israel Corp., is the biggest contributor.

Better Place has sold a few cars in Israel so far, but it is gearing up for a mass market launch that will hopefully get its charge stations (it has 1,500) and swap stations (40 are planned) humming. Israel is as good a place as any for the company to launch, and it has the benefit of being a fairly closed transportation market, and very small — three hours on the road will get you nearly everywhere in the country. As Agassi points out, if an Israeli car is traveling outside Israel, it's probably been stolen. I'll be watching closely as this unique experiment goes forward.

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