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The Future Of The Electric Car

And the award for most intriguing energy story of the month goes to... well, August isn't over, but I'm nominating Wired's long profile of Shai Agassi, who's not quite the household name T. Boone Pickens is, but has an even more radical plan to end the planet's oil addiction. Agassi believes the future of transport revolves around electric cars—with a twist:

But oil, in the end, supplanted volts on American highways because of one perennial problem: batteries. Car batteries, then and now, are heavy and expensive, don't last long, and take forever to recharge. In five minutes you can fill a car with enough gas to go 300 miles, but five minutes of charging at home gets you only about 8 miles in an electric car. Clever tricks, like adding "range extenders"—gas engines that kick in when a battery dies—end up making the cars too expensive.

Agassi dealt with the battery issue by simply swatting it away. Previous approaches relied on a traditional manufacturing formula: We make the cars, you buy them. Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of "smart" charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan—unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go—all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They'd buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity—the minutes.

There would be plugs in homes, offices, shopping malls. And when customers couldn't wait to "fill up," they'd go to battery exchange stations where they would pull into car-wash-like sheds, and in a few minutes, a hydraulic lift would swap the depleted battery with a fresh one. Drivers wouldn't pay a penny extra: The ERGO would own the battery.

The notion that car-owners would essentially rent their batteries is clever, but also radical: Auto companies would move out of the business of simply selling cars and into the business of selling entire transportation networks. Drivers might benefit, though: If a typical car-owner gets 20 miles per gallon and drives 15,000 miles per year, she'd pay $3,000 a year at the gas pump with $4 gas, compared with just $1,050 for the cost of electricity plus battery depreciation under Aggasi's plan. Obviously this network makes most sense for people with relatively short commutes—long road trips would pose a challenge—but then again, short trips make up a hefty chunk of all car travel.

Would it even work? Israel's the country to watch here: Shimon Peres is sold on Agassi's plan, the legislature is sharply reducing its 78 percent car tax for electric vehicles, Agassi has raised $200 million to build a national grid, and Renault is rolling out vehicles as early as next year, hoping to have 100,000 electric cars on the road by 2011. It's not surprising that Israel's leading the way—no country needs less lecturing about the dangers of oil dependency—but it's also a natural site to test out the idea, since most cars don't travel large distances anyway (the round-trip commute from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is just 99 miles). 

Denmark, too, is looking closely at the plan, also with good reason—after all, the country's largest utility gets 18 percent of its energy from wind, but has nowhere to store the excess electricity. Car batteries are one tantalizing solution, since the cars would charge at night, when demand is lowest but wind is often blowing the hardest. Last year, the Department of Energy released a report suggesting that the United States could in theory replace 84 percent of all cars and light trucks with plug-in hybrids without building a single new power plant. If Agassi's plan does catch hold—and it's still very, very early—one side benefit could be an expanded market for intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar. But apart from some stirring up interest in Hawaii, Agassi hasn't managed to sway American policymakers yet.

--Bradford Plumer