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Electrifying cars Down Under

The alternative-energy automobile company known as Better Place plans to bring the same electric car system already in the works for Israel and Denmark to Australia. After raising $1 billion in capital—a tall order in today’s cold economic climate—Better Place founder Shai Agassi, a former software executive, Australian bank Macquarie and partners plan to build by 2012 electric car charge garages and battery exchange stations throughout Australia—all powered by wind turbines and other renewable resources (when possible)—to service the vehicles.

Basically, Better Place is trying to make electric cars—specifically the Renault-Nissan eMegane under development that can drive around 100 miles on one charge with a top power of 91 horsepower—work like cellphones. Customers would pay by the minute, er, mile, to use cars (powered by batteries and electricity) that they owned or leased. Customers would purchase mileage plans in order to use Better Place’s recharging stations and battery swaps. A123 Systems, a battery company in Watertown, Mass., will be the most likely battery provider, according to Agassi.

Ubiquitous charge spots would ensure at least 100 miles of driving range at all times. Plans call for at least 2.5 such Better Place spots for every electric car. But for those longer trips—say across the outback—there will also be places to swap out depleted batteries for fresh ones. Of course, it remains unclear how much any of this would cost.

There are around 15 million cars in Australia, a number that is dwarfed by the at least 62 million cars in the U.S. and the 38 million or so—and growing—in China. Yet Australians emit the most greenhouse gases per person—beating out tough competitors like the Americans—due mainly to their reliance on dirty coal power (although the current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has pledged to derive 20 percent of power needs from renewables by 2020). The Better Place effort will initially focus on bringing the electric cars to  residents of the heavily populated east coast between Melbourne and Sydney.

Switching from oil to electricity for cars could bring down overall climate-change causing carbon dioxide emissions, even though Australia has experimented with carbon-light fuels. But to rein in global waming, the country would have to derive nearly all of its electricity from carbon-free sources, such as geothermal, nuclear, wind and sun. And the cars for this plan don’t exist yet: no one has built anything other prototypes. But Agassi is not worried.

“With our commitment to build infrastructure and the [Australian] federal government’s $500 million Green Car Innovation Fund," he said in announcing the Australian venture, "there is a compelling case for automobile manufacturers to jump in and build clean, safe, affordable electric cars for Australasia and Southeast Asia.” Who knows? Maybe some Australian city will become the Detroit of the 21st century?

Photo Credit: © Bjorn Kindler/istockphoto.com

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