Among 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:
“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?