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Battery-swap tests wastes $1 billion on failed program

The cash supported a one-year demonstration project for the concept, in which EV drivers could have a depleted battery replaced by a fresh one in five minutes.

  • Better Place

As money down the drain goes, this wasn’t major.

But I could certainly think of better ways to spend $1 million than the Ontario government did when, four years ago, it signed an agreement with Better Place, a California company that planned to install battery-swapping stations for electric vehicles around the world.

The cash supported a one-year demonstration project for the concept, in which EV drivers could have a depleted battery replaced by a fresh one in five minutes.

At the time, Better Place founder Shai Agassi proclaimed the agreement would, ?move Ontario toward a new era in personal transportation.?

Nothing much happened during the one-year trial, and nothing followed. Now, it?s clear, nothing ever will.

Agassi was bounced from Better Place last year. As of Dec. 31, the company?s balance sheet featured an unhealthy $150 million in assets against $915 million in liabilities.

Recently, it became the latest in a string of EV-related businesses to go bankrupt, petitioning a court in Israel to approve its dissolution, ?in light of its failure to raise additional funds and in the absence of sufficient resources for the continued operation of the business.?

Ontario?s $1 million contribution pales in comparison with the nearly $1 billion in venture capital and government subsidies fed into this cash-combustion chamber.

It was a modest investment in image-making for then-premier Dalton “High Tech”McGuinty, while his government was busy squandering far greater sums on the likes of gas-fuelled generating stations and medical-flight helicopters.

Why was the bankruptcy petition filed in Israel? Simple: It’s one of only two countries (along with Denmark) where Better Place made any, albeit limited, headway.

Both seemed ideal candidates; small enough to be serviced by a reasonable number of swapping stations and, initially, with supportive governments. Israel even made it illegal to plug an EV into a regular outlet, and Better Place was the sole provider of approved charging stations.

Most Better Place customers loved the service. But they were too few to make it work ‘ only about 750 Israelis joined the first year.

It’s sad to see a concept that promised to overcome the limited range and long charging times of EV batteries fall flat. It was also inevitable. Failure, it seems, was built into the Better Place model.

Customers were expected to buy a battery-less EV, and then sign a service agreement that included swaps and a home charging unit.

Better Place hoped several carmakers would participate, presumably using a common battery and installation design. That was a non-starter since the battery is an EV’s most crucial component and what Better Place wanted was equivalent to requiring all internal-combustion cars to use the same engine.

Over six years, only Renault signed on, producing a battery-powered version of its Fluence sedan with a swappable battery. And it’s now bailing: “We must conclude that replaceable batteries are no longer the main track for electric vehicles,” CEO Carlos Ghosn told the Danish Energy Watch website.

The financing was dicey, too. Each swapping station cost $500,000. Israel alone required 40. Add more countries and the outlay would soar to hundreds of millions ? before much revenue arrived.

As well, EV batteries cost about $10,000. With every new customer, the cost of stocking enough to provide good service would rise until it was unsupportable at a price Better Place could charge.

Better Place devotees still dream of rescue: “Maybe there is a $500-million-plus asset waiting to be bought for pennies on the dollar and to turn into one of the world’s great successes,” one supporter says in an ?End is Near? blog.

Speculation that the flourishing Tesla might save the day was doused by news the company is, instead, accelerating its own fast-charging network.

It looks like battery swapping is as gone as our $1 million.

wheels@thestar.ca

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