At a charging station, hydraulic arms and conveyor belts automatically either plug the car in or remove its battery and replace it with a fresh one, all with little or no human intervention. The company has made first strides towards its recharging stations with commitments in Denmark, Israel, California, and now Hawaii. The latest announcement, concerning Hawaii, promises a network of EV support stations by 2012. Renewable sources such as the sun and wind, says the company, will generate the electricity that recharges the spent batteries.

Better Place, which we’ve written about before, could seemingly be offering the infrastructure that finally makes EVs more practical. But before declaring it fait accompli, there are some serious considerations that will need to be addressed in the coming year. Such as:

• Wait, uh, battery swaps? What quality controls will be in place to make sure the battery that’s getting plopped into your car is in great condition and just as good as the one you got from the manufacturer and are now giving up? And imagine how many batteries would have to be in stock at each charging station to make sure that any driver will be able to drive off ready and charged. Sounds pricey.

•  Hawaii, the collection of tiny, desirable islands that it is, gets about 90 percent of its electricity from imported fossil fuels. It has renewable portfolio standards in place that mandate 15% renewably generated electricity by 2015 for each utility, but that’s not that much if we’re talking about potentially putting all passenger cars on the grid. When will we be able to safely say that this charging method is indeed cleaner? Will Better Place pay to set up wind and solar farms? Bear in mind that land in Hawaii is one rare commodity, so large sprawling solar fields or winding rows of wind turbines may not be as easy to install as one might think.

• And lastly, doesn't it all sound like a bit of a hassle? The project is an attempt to remedy an imperfect system. It can't help but feel inelegant. Is the battery swap system superior to replacing every conventional vehicle in Hawaii with a plug-in hybrid? Plug-ins offer many of the same advantages without the massive infrastructure investment or the strange treatment of batteries as if they were luggage carts. For now, only two vehicles, made by Better Place partners Renault and Nissan, are expected to be compatible with the swapping stations, at least until other carmakers get on board. My bet is that it’ll take some convincing before several more EV makers agree to standardize their battery placement and vehicle designs for the sake of an unproven technology.

Story by Sandra Upson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

EV battery swap model raises questions
An Israeli start-up called Project Better Place envisions electric-vehicle drivers swapping their batteries whenever a car battery's charge is depleted.