Tech Watch: Australian Companies Fund Electric Vehicle Grid

Better Place, a US firm that builds plug-in stations for electric cars, has just landed a $667 million USD deal to build charging networks in Australia’s three largest cities. Like smaller-scale Better Place deals already underway in Denmark and Israel, the Australian charging network will allow battery-powered and hybrid car-owners to charge their vehicles at thousands of locations, or have their vehicles batteries swapped out for faster fill-ups.

Better Place has recruited two potent partners in the project: the Australian power company AGL, who will provide electricity to the network, as well as finance group Macquarie Capital, which will raise the money required to build roughly a quarter-million charging stations each in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. The cities are seeking cheaper, cleaner alternatives to Australia’s prohibitive gas and diesel prices, and Better Place is promising a ubiquitous charging network by 2012.

In addition to charging stations at homes, businesses, parking lots and shopping centers, Better Place will also build about 150 of the battery swapping stations in each city, modeling them on fast oil-change and carwash chains. These stations will allow for longer trips, uninterrupted by the need to wait for charging.

Drivers will be able to recharge their cars through agreements that work similarly to mobile phone contracts, in which the amount of charge they can get is outlined in a usage plan with regular rates per mile.

Automakers like Renault-Nissan and General Motors [GM] are both planning to release electric cars by 2010, and the Australian federal government may offer tax incentives or free electricity to early adopters as an inventive. The State of Victoria has already given the project its endorsement.

While they don’t yet exist, the Better Place-compatible cars themselves would get about 100 miles per charge, and top out at around 90 horsepower. Existing hybrids and other electric vehicles would require inexpensive adaptors to charge on the Better Place system. Shai Agassi, Better Place’s founder and a former software executive, has said that the batteries for his company’s compatible vehicles would likely come from A123 Systems, a battery company in Massachusetts. But Australians should see new jobs and economic growth from the project as well as the American, French and Japanese companies already involved, because of the large-scale construction required to set up charging and battery-swap stations.

While Australia only has about 15 million cars (compared to the US at almost 70 million and China at nearly 40 million), the island nation has the world’s highest carbon footprint per citizen, due in part to its reliance on coal power. But government is showing initiative to change that; Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised that by 2020, Australia will get at least 20% of its power from green, renewable sources like wind power, and the Australian government is also sponsoring a $500 million Green Car Innovation fund that Better Place hopes to leverage. That bodes well for Agassi and his company, which are claiming that their network should power cars for the equivalent of about $.06 USD per gallon.

But problems may arise. The battery maker Agassi cites, A123 Systems, is going through its own dramatic episodes that could jeopardize its relationship with Better Place. After applying for an IPO in August, the company then went on to swallow several smaller battery makers, including Enerland Co. of South Korea and Hymotion of Canada, thanks in part to repeated investments from GM. However, as of Friday morning it appears that A123 could lose out on a deal to be battery supplier for GM’s new Volt hybrid to LG Chemicals – a coup for LG and a staggering defeat for A123. The company already has problems to deal with, like correcting falling revenues and repairing relations with another customer, Black and Decker [BDK]. The loss of the GM deal could rattle the company badly enough that it might not be able to make good on a deal with Renault/Nissan and Better Place.

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