It's electrifying!

February 18, 2013 | 00:00

It's electrifying!

I got chills they're multiplying; and I'm losing control; cause the power you're supplying; it's electrifying!

John Travolta was not referring to electric cars of course, but to Olivia Newton John. Still, not so long ago the famous Grease song could well have been written for the electric car. The Spark, the Tesla, the Leaf, the Volt, the Ampera - they were the darlings of Hollywood stars and forward-thinking Europeans.

Lately, however, it's been rather quiet around the electric car. Sales have been uniformly disappointing and car manufacturers are quietly backtracking on their earlier ambitious plans. Toyota last year unequivocally said that electric cars are not the future, and is staking its fortunes on the plug-in hybrid.

However, the electric car dream has not died yet, certainly not in Brussels. On 24 January, the European Commission presented its new "clean fuel strategy" (on which our correspondent Sonja van Renssen will have more to say on Thursday). Part of this strategy is to "put in place a critical mass of charging points" across Europe.

The Commission has proposed (surprise, surprise) "targets for 2020" for each country. For instance, Germany, which now has 1937 charging points, should have 150,000 in 2020. Greece, to mention another example, which now has 3 (!), should expand this to 13,000. Brussels has also proclaimed that the "Type 2" plug will become the standard for the whole of Europe. (France, which uses a different type, is already protesting.)

One company that is content with these proposals is Better Place. Remember Better Place? Another "green darling" of days gone by, the company of "the charismatic Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi" (as he is always described) has recently run into some difficulties. Better Place (famous for its concept of "battery switching stations") has announced it is scaling down operations in North America and Australia. Agassi has left the company, which has "burned" $500 million since its founding in 2007. Electrifying indeed.

Despite these setbacks, however, Better Place is still alive and kicking. As Evan Thornley, who succeeded Agassi as CEO but departed last month, explains in an interview with EER's Sonja van Renssen, the company has decided to limit its activities to Israel and Denmark, which it hopes will become the model markets from where Better Place will conquer the world (and make it a "better place", as Agassi's self-proclaimed ideal has always been).

So what arguments does the Australian Thornley have to convince the world that the electric car, as envisioned by his company, is still the future? Well, he actually does have some good arguments. He notes that "we're in the oil reduction business and there are several public policy reasons why this is a good idea: climate, air pollution and respiratory disease, and economics."

The first three of those reasons speak for themselves. As to the economics, the argument is that the money we now spend on oil goes to (in my own words) doubtful regimes in the Middle East, whereas it would otherwise be spent on domestic investment. An old argument, but it undeniably has merits.

And Thornley makes another point as well. He notes that "People hate buying gasoline more than anything else." Any politician that would liberate the public from their hated dependence on expensive gasoline, he says, would make himself or herself hugely popular.

I must confess I had never thought of it that way, but the Australian has a point here. Do I hate buying gasoline? I sure do! Hell, we're in the middle of an economic crisis and oil prices are still sky high. What will happen if the economy ever picks up?

Get on to it, Brussels. Roll out those charging points!

And remember what John Travolta said when he talked about his Greased Lightnin': "This car could be systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic!"


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