News
Comment

Province plugs in to electric cars

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sees the future of transportation as a vast network of charging stations and robot-controlled battery swap shops that will keep millions of electric cars in the province topped up with clean, coal-free electricity.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sees the future of transportation as a vast network of charging stations and robot-controlled battery “swap” shops that will keep millions of electric cars in the province topped up with clean, coal-free electricity.

Such an infrastructure – an intelligent merging of the electricity system with battery-powered transportation – would create green-collar jobs as auto manufacturers retool their facilities to build a new generation of energy-efficient vehicles, or what some are calling “Car 2.0.”

McGuinty took the first step toward this bold but untested vision yesterday by announcing a partnership with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Better Place, a high-tech company that wants to sell electricity for cars the way mobile phone plans are sold today to cellphone users.

Better Place’s grand plan is to set up regional Electric Recharge Grid Operators that would sell energy to electric-car drivers as part of a monthly subscription. It’s a unique and controversial approach, but the company has persuaded Israel, Denmark and Australia to join the ambitious journey.

While no investments have yet been made, McGuinty said the partnership represents a crucial commitment to the concept.

“We’re just beginning this,” McGuinty said at a news conference, adding the government’s intention is to send an important signal to the market. “One of the most important things we can do is demonstrate we are truly an electric-car friendly jurisdiction.”

The Toronto Star reported in September that senior members of government were in talks with Better Place about turning the GTA into an electric transportation hub.

Electric cars are considered more environmentally friendly than gas-powered vehicles because they don’t have tailpipe emissions.

A number of studies have found the cars would be cleaner even if the electricity used to charge them came from coal-fired power plants.

In Ontario, only a quarter of electricity production comes from fossil fuels, expected to drop to less than 10 per cent by 2025.

Better Place said it will set up its Canadian head office in Ontario and establish an electric vehicle demonstration and education centre in Toronto.

Over the next few months, it will develop a more technical business plan, which will estimate a timeline and cost for building out a network.

At the same time, the government will do its own comprehensive study that will look at ways to accelerate the manufacture and deployment of electric vehicles in Ontario. That report will be released in May.

NDP environment and energy critic Peter Tabuns said the government is trying to create the impression it’s doing more than it actually is on the electric-car front. “There seems to be a lot of studying going on and not a lot of action,” he said.

Shai Agassi, founder and chief executive of Better Place, said the project will require much “preparation work” and consumer education, but the goal is to create the policies, public demand, and incentives that will entice existing automakers in Ontario to feed the market.

“The opportunity for automakers to see demand in a location, where they can effectively just retool the factory and not start from scratch, is extremely appealing for them right now,” said Agassi, 38.

He emphasized the importance of letting the public see, learn about and test drive electric cars to build support for future transportation infrastructure aimed at weaning society off gasoline.

Young people are a key target.

“I can guarantee you one thing,” Agassi said. “Once a high school student drives an electric car, their first car is not going to go on gasoline.”

Better Place says the GTA is an appealing market because of its population density. The company presented documents last summer showing it would likely require an investment of more than $150 million to set up a local grid operator and the infrastructure to support 100,000 electric-car subscribers within 160 kilometres of downtown Toronto.

Agassi said any make of electric car could “roam” on to Better Place’s charging network, but more cooperation with manufacturers would be required to make sure future models of electric cars are designed with “swappable” batteries.

The Better Place model isn’t without its critics. General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz told the Star last fall he didn’t like the idea because batteries tend to be purpose-built for the vehicles they power.

And building out the network would be far too complex and costly, he said.

With files from Rob Ferguson

Follow Wheels.ca on
Facebook
Instagram #wheelsca
Twitter

Avatar
Wheels.ca
Show Comments