Better Place Pulled Down Israel and Denmark Electric Car Markets, Say Local Drivers

By · December 13, 2013

Better Place Charger, Denmark

A Better Place electric car charging station in Copenhagen. (Photo: Brad Berman)

Among the high-profile electric car flameouts in 2013, Better Place was the most spectacular. Unprecedented hype and $850 million of investment came crashing down in May, leaving a set of Better Place assets that a few weeks ago were purchased for $450,000 by Gnrgy, an Israeli energy start-up founded in 2008. We are only now starting to understand how Better Place’s bankruptcy affected electric car owners, who were dependent on the company’s fledgling EV refueling technology.

The stories told by local drivers located shed light on what resulted from Better Place's top-down strategy of trying to revolutionize and own a vast expanse of the EV ecosphere—including in-vehicle technology, refueling stations and networking services. The driver testimonials come from outreach conducted by PlugInsights—the market research firm that is a sister organization to PluginCars.com.

Back to Gas

One Israel-based owner of a 2012 Renaulf Fluence Z.E., purchased through Better Place, explained that at this stage, battery swapping is shut down, public charging spots have been disconnected, and dealerships that might sell EVs have been scared off. “We had to buy a gas car after Better place went bankrupt,” he said.

As a result, EV drivers promised to pay about $2 to travel 100 kilometers in an electric vehicle, have returned to internal combustion, which according to the respondent, costs closer to about $9 for the same distance. “Low operating cost,” was cited as one of the main reasons for his purchase of the Fluence, along with environment benefits, cool technology, and more fun behind the wheel.

Ran Eloya, chief executive of Gnrgy, told Associated Press that his company would focus Better Place’s renewal on successfully operating the 1,800 public charging spots that serve Israel’s 1,000 or so electric cars. Batter swapping will not be offered. The Israeli Fluence driver said that public charging spots were disconnected because property owners were bearing the cost of providing juice at their charging stations. The drivers are now reliant on home and workplace charging, in many cases, using portable chargers.

Incentives Only for Pure EVs

The Israeli plug-in car market is limited. The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which is less reliant on public charging, is available—but is quite costly. In many global markets, including Denmark—another country where Better Place operated—electric-drive vehicles using any form of internal combustion to extend range do not qualify for incentives.

For example, a Danish driver of a 2013 Renault Zoe, explained via PlugInsights that the upcoming BMW i3, when configured as a pure battery-electric vehicle, is exempt from the country’s hefty 180% vehicle registration tax. As a result, the i3’s local price is around U.S. $55,000. But for consumers wanting the range-extending engine—a feature that adds $3,850 to the sticker of the car in the U.S.—the i3’s Danish price is pushed above $100,000 (because the registration tax remains in place).

Better Place battery swapping station in Israel, prior to bankrupcy

Better Place battery swapping station in Israel, prior to the company's bankruptcy.

Increased Skepticism

He explained that, despite public support for EVs expressed by Danish authorities, private EV owners are “still few and far between” and public charging is scarce and expensive. “It is still impossible to drive across our country, small as it is,” he said. “As soon as more chargers are installed, we will do it.” He cited a statistic that only six electric Zoe cars were sold in Denmark in November—partly explained by the lack of knowledge of the car by local dealerships, as well as insufficient public charging.

The Zoe driver in Denmark, like the Fluence EV owner in Israel, said that the legacy of Better Place—which was trumpeted as a major catalyst for EV adoption—is profoundly negative. “Unfortunately, the fact that our country, together with only Israel, was the test lab for Better Place and the unfortunate Renault Fluence has meant that many people are now skeptical toward EVs,” he wrote. “Better Place has made Denmark a worse place for electric vehicles since the company dramatic demise in May 2013.”

Comments

· · 32 weeks ago

Better place was just a sad joke, i never believe a single second that it was honest from the start.

· · 32 weeks ago

I find the tone of this story a bit odd, as if bp subscribers have been left high and dry with expensive four-wheel paperweights. While I realize buyers who were counting on bp's swapping/charging network may have to get rid of the cars because home charging won't work for them, it's not like the cars are complete white elephants. There is still plenty of electricity being produced to power them, and there are still folks who would prefer to drive electric to buy them. The Fluence should still work perfectly well with in-home charging and whatever public charging infrastructure is available - who cares if the swappable battery pack never gets swapped? (at least it'll be easier to replace when the time comes!) In other words, they have an EV like any other out there. It's not working out as well as hoped, but that's hardly a catastrophe.

· · 31 weeks ago

vike,

As a Leaf driver who does >95% of his charging at home using 110V trickle, I agree with your factual observation, since the Fluence ZE is functionally equivalent (or nearly equivalent) to the Leaf.

However, you need to understand the following BP-specific and Israel-specific effects:

1. BP marketed itself to the low-information, lazy consumerist "soft middle" of society. The entire battery-swap schpiel was designed to make the EV transition effortless. Once swap stations (and nearly all public charging) are gone, you suddenly become a typical BEV driver, which requires more planning, discipline and willingness to compromise occasionally. Besides the feeling that you got screwed over, paid for X+y+Z and ended up having only X and being laughed at by everyone around you as a sucker (a very powerful pain point in Israeli society).

2. In its drive to monopolize Israel's EV and charging market, BP had its lobbyists essentially write the first-ever set of government regulations for EV charging. The first draconian version forbade any charging save via a centralized provider (i.e. them and no one else). There was public and (more importantly) international outcry, and so it was pared down to "only" disallow/discourage home trickle charging. According to an ex-BP acqaintance who still drives his Fluence, trickle charging is not downright illegal - but is against code. Also, it appears that the ZE trickle-charge cable is thicker than the Leaf's 110V one, and therefore unlike the Leaf's which would work with any standard modern outlet, the ZE's (which requires 10A on 220V) might actually overload many of the standard outlets in Israeli homes.

3. In Israel's cities the percentage of people living in apartments and/or without a guaranteed night parking spot is far higher than in the US. Many BP customers relied on either the workplace charging installed for them by BP as part of the package deal, or on the swapping stations.

It is sad to hear that Denmark, too, suffers in terms of EV setbacks because of BP. The Israeli setback was inevitable (I predicted it in fall 2012), but Israel was really neither a first-tier nor a second-tier candidate market for EVs to begin with. Denmark, OTOH, a stone's throw from the super-hot EV markets of Norway and Holland, and has tons of wind energy that can be put to good use in quick-charging stations etc., so it's a real shame.

· · 31 weeks ago

@Assaf: Thanks very much for reporting these details. I appreciated neither how different the residential power situation in Israel is from the U.S., nor how widely undesirable EVs would be there without good public charging infrastructure.

Even so, much of BP's rationale for promoting EV use in Israel still seems sound. Importing petroleum is unattractive, alternative sources for electricity generation are quite feasible (e.g., one would think solar farms in the Negev a workable proposition), and for political reasons the country is effectively an island state with an isolated vehicle population (I can't imagine there are many day trips to Damascus).

At minimum, I'd hope public officials would reverse any policies remaining in place that discourage home charging. Even electrical load issues might be dealt with by providing meaningful incentives for overnight charging (e.g., subsidized mandatory separate meters with strong time of day differentials). Even if many current owners will have to give the cars up because of the absence of public charging infrastructure, the right policy changes should be able to make EVs attractive enough to be salable. That said, I do understand what you're saying about the difficulties of turning around perceptions.

BP had a vision for an alternative vehicle support infrastructure to replace (or at least parallel) the existing ICEV support network of refineries, tankers, and gas stations. Had it worked, the system could have reduced top line costs and capital risks for individual EV owners, delivered unrestricted range as required, and in so doing assuaged popular concerns about the practicality of EVs. Instead, it sounds like BP has discredited the whole EV concept in the places where it was tried. It's a real shame.

· · 30 weeks ago

@vike: much obliged.

If you want to read a bit more about the intricacies, intrigue, Agassi-specific and Israel-specific dynamics that had led to BP's demise, here's the in-depth post I wrote about it in October 2012:

http://theonlydemocracy.org/2012/10/how-not-to-introduce-new-green-tech-...

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