Project Better Place’s Announcement is Story of the Year

Renault-Nissan and Project Better Place recently announced a plan to make Israel oil-free by 2010. They are going to do this by building an electric car infrastructure — vehicles with swap-out-able batteries, and a system of 500,000 re-charging facilities across the country.

It’s only January, and I’m ready to call this the most significant news story of the year. Why? Two reasons.

First, this group has a better chance than most to actually succeed. It’s got the backing of a major auto manufacturer ready to build dedicated vehicles, local oil refining interests are financially invested, the project developers are smart as hell and have more money than God, and it’s all facilitated by a government that sees the issue as a real national security issue. Plus, Israel is perfect for electric cars. I mean really-how far can you go, even if you wanted to?

Second, the implications will go far beyond transportation. It will radically enlarge the possibilities for solar and wind. We don’t have an energy problem-there’s plenty of sun and wind the world around. What we have is an energy storage problem. Scientific American recently published a plan to pave the American Southwest in photovoltaics, build a national network of DC transmission lines, and store 69% of America’s electricity needs as pressurized air in underground caverns. While the plan might be technically feasible, politically it’s a fantasy. Given our country’s patchwork of jurisdictions, commitment to state’s rights, and general abdication of leadership at the federal level, I just don’t see it happening. I mean, we couldn’t even get a crummy $660 million for an extension of the 30% solar investment tax credit. Don’t even talk to me about $420 billion dollars, and nearly the same number of outraged local utilities and slighted regulators.

An aggressive effort to electrify transportation will do two things: it will accelerate battery technology development, and it will put millions of big and better batteries on the grid. With some smart metering and smarter software (note: Shai Agassi, the head of Project Better Place, was formerly #2 at SAP, the software giant), it’s not too hard to imagine how a benevolent utility could radically expand the amount of intermittent resources that could be put on the grid. Just take a look at the NREL study that concludes that Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles can be a significant enabling factor for increased market penetration of wind. And if utilities don’t get on board? Well, the intersection of cheap solar and big batteries will enhance the opportunities for going off the grid as well.

Like two lonely people made whole by a happy marriage, dirty transportation and the intermittency of renewable resources are two problems that find a solution in each other. Solar to the electric car: you complete me.

Adam Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Vote Solar, a non-profit organization working to bring solar energy into the mainstream.

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