Transportation: Toward a better place

charging_station.jpgAmong the thorniest problems of transforming global society into a sustainable one is that of transportation. For general power needs of homes and industry, the technology already exists to generate electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar, albeit not on the scale currently possible from fossil fuels. The challenge involves scaling this technology up, distributing the power, and aggressively enhancing efficiency to bring energy consumption down enough that a diverse, large-scale renewable energy industry can satisfy it.

But what about planes, trains, and automobiles? OK, mainly planes and automobiles, since many trains can run on electricity. How will we power the zillions of cars on the road when a giant electric battery can only get you 40 miles or so?

There is a way to get to this Better Place and it is indeed based on battery-powered electric vehicles. The key to making it work is establishing a comprehensive national infrastructure that involves electricity generation from renewable sources, optimization of an efficient battery and electric car designs, and a network of charging stations and battery exchange stations. Shai Agassi and colleagues at Better Place are on it.  Here’s the dope:

“In addition to widely deployed charge spots, the Better Place network will provide fully-automated battery exchange stations. These swap stations are designed to extend the driver’s journey beyond the 100 mile range of a fully-charged battery. Because most of today’s driving is within 40 miles of the home, a visit to one of these facilities will be infrequent when compared to the number of times we currently have to pull into a gas station.

These Better Place battery exchange stations are even more efficient and convenient than conventional gas stations. Each is roughly the size of your average living room. Like the charging spots, they are fully automated. A driver pulls in, puts the car in the neutral gear, and sits back. The battery exchange station does all the work. The depleted battery is removed, and a fully-charged replacement is installed. In under three minutes, the car is back on the road. It’s just like an automatic car wash—a quick, effortless, drive-through experience.”

But that’s could never work economically, right? There’s a precedent:

electric-car.jpg“The Better Place business model is one most of us already experience every day—with our mobile phones. Think of it like this: we pay mobile providers for minute-by-minute access to cell towers connected together in cellular networks. Truth is, we pay comparatively little—or next to nothing—for the phones themselves. After all, what you’re really buying is air time, not a box with buttons. The same model works for transportation. Just replace the phone with an electric car, replace the cell towers with battery recharge stations, and replace the cellular networks with an electric recharge grid. Now you’re buying miles, not minutes.

Better Place’s model means consumers subscribe to transportation as a service, much like they do today with mobile phones. Auto companies make the electric cars that plug in to the Better Place electric recharge network of charging stations and battery swap stations. Energy companies provide the network’s power through growing renewable energy projects. And Better Place provides the batteries to make owning an electric car affordable and convenient.”

Seem like pie in the sky? Ford doesn’t think so. Toyota has plans for plug-in hybrids soon and all-electric vehicles within a decade. And in China, they’re developing cars that use solar energy. Even ol’ Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is on the bandwagon.

Which raises a question: What was that frenzied mob screaming “Drill, baby drill!” at the Republican National Convention thinking?

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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10 Responses to Transportation: Toward a better place

  1. david moxness says:

    They were thinking “maintain the status quo”. Namely US. Billions in oil wealth is the real green they are interested in.

  2. Don says:

    T. Boone has an identity problem. He is advocating massive public investment in infrastructure while supporting the party that in the main opposes all but military infrastructure investment.

  3. matt says:

    of the things that I just came a cross is that they are considering putting one of these types of setups in Hawaii. What I hear is that because Hawaii Islands are small enough, it makes sense to have a charging stations because the distances between and the distances that you drive are usually on average more than 20 miles. The question is whether people will buy the cars.

  4. Steve Rossi says:

    Reading from the article above and from other media, I’ve come to one solution, instead of everyone wasting precious resources and time strategising about what we “can, should, would” do, why dont we just start doing the simple stuff like car pooling, swapping old items for new, recycling. With the digital world we live in, all the above mentioned tasks can be easily facilitated.

  5. Connie D says:

    I am glad that we are seeing so much more press on the green effort. With gas prices coming down, let’s hope that the “fire” for change doesn’t subside.

  6. I agree going electric is a excellent alternative , it’s clean and environment friendly , also just imagine the space we’ll save because all those storage for fuel will be eliminated and all those oil tankers ( let’s face it they are a threat to the environment)

    I think we are facing resistance from the political section is that the big oil companies have a considerable influence over them.

  7. Inmate says:

    We have to look for ways to re-employ people if we’re systematically going to look at closing down major industry sectors.

  8. As a California resident and electric vehicle buff, I am closely following what Better Place and Shai Agassi are up to. If Mr. Agassi is successful with his ‘lease and swap’ model for EV batteries, we could see a major paradigm shift in the industry… exciting times.

  9. At the present the source to create electricity is carbon based fuels weather it is to light our homes or power our vehicles.

    We believe that natural gas for the short term and H2O- hydrogen will be the fuel for the long haul strategy.

    We are years behind in green research and application to break away from our oil driven economy.

    The United States spends billions of dollars to shoot research vehicles to Mars and other questionable programs.

    If the same amount of funding was in place for alternative green energy research we would be on track to stop our oil dependence
    and create a cleaner world.

    Every American needs to support our alternative energy plan for our future, don’t let the lower gas prices fool you, they
    can double again in the blink of an eye.

  10. Today on NPR they were talking about the car show in Detroit, and Ford and GM electric cars. The challenge will be how to recharge a car like this, for long distance driving, and the cost of the technology when it is just launched. Will the auto companies stay in business to get these cars to the public?