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Green Smoke and Mirrors: A Voice of Reason On Israel's Electric Car Hype

Today, with Renault-Nissan signed on to build the first prototype (it was released a couple of weeks ago), it seems that Israel could be the world's first to pilot test the electric car on a national scale.
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Okay, we admit it, we were kind of intoxicated too at first. Shai Agassi, of Project Better Place, had a new vision for the way electric cars can be built, sold and refueled. The handsome, charismatic businessman took that vision to investors who followed. Today, with Renault-Nissan signed on to build the first prototype (it was released a couple of weeks ago), it seems that Israel could be the world's first to pilot test the electric car on a national scale.

Similar to the way the cellular phone business works (you buy minutes instead of the device), Agassi proposes that drivers pay for how often the batteries are replaced (charged at special stations around the country) and not for the car itself. Today with Israelis paying about $2 a liter for fuel, and about 90% tax when buying a car, everyone jumped to embrace Agassi's idea.

Or at least that's how things seemed. Of course there is the attractive benefit of using an electric car to reduce one's carbon dioxide emissions, for decreasing air pollution, and curbing the need for foreign oil, but we think most of all, Israelis were quick to join the electric car hype of Project Better Place because Israelis love being entrepreneurial. Shai Agassi's idea was crazy enough for Israelis to believe it would work.

We have to state that we have not studied auto mechanics in high school nor have we have been following the Agassi project on a steady basis, but a few major concerns come to mind:

The Way of the Sony Betamax

Agassi's electric car is not a hybrid car, but fueled by an electric battery only. Like the Beta machine, that could only play Beta movies or Kodak's Advantix camera that takes only Advantix film, Agassi's car batteries will work only in Agassi cars. (We grew up in a Beta machine house and suffered immensely).

In order for Agassi's electric cars to refuel, new battery-replacement stations equipped to automatically transfer and replace the battery (which wears out quickly), must be in place and be as ubiquitous as gas stations are today -- a problem in a small country with no more elbow room to develop the urban sprawl.


Agassi's electric car could potentially be so affordable that every person will want one. Unlike in America, or Canada where we grew up, it is more common for Israeli households to be either a one or a zero car household. Fuel is about double the price in North America, and the government taxes, repairs, car parking fines, yearly standards tests, lack of parking, and traffic headaches, make owning one a huge liability. With Agassi's plan, the first four problems will go away, but not the last ones. More people will be on the roads, more roads will need to be built, and there will be more accidents.

Highly Questionable Clean Fuel
Electric cars in Israel won't be green cars, at least not for the next 20 years. The country derives 70 percent of its power from burning coal, very polluting for air quality and very bad for greenhouse gas emissions.

Sorry to be a bummer to all those who are rooting for Agassi, but we have to listen to our inner activist on this one. Our voice is not alone. Take for example, Yael Cohen Paran, director of Israel's Energy Forum. In an op-ed on ISRAEL21c, she writes:

Electric cars - what about pedal power?

Two million electric cars flooding the streets and highways of Israel using not even a single drop of gasoline? This prospect of an oil-free and seemingly green future has recently excited many journalists and Israeli politicians. First raised by a young Israeli high-tech entrepreneur, Shai Agassi, the concept was immediately embraced by the Israeli Government and President Shimon Peres.

However, as the smoke surrounding the idea clears, it becomes apparent that Israel's great potential as an innovator for a greener future should follow a more sustainable path...A cleaner solution for electricity production is urgently needed, and maybe this should be resolved first, before converting all the cars into electric ones, she writes.

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This TreeHugger would rather see Israel's Infrastructure Minister (confronted by Greenpeace at the Renewable Energy and Beyond conference in Tel Aviv last month), join hands with Shai Agassi and Shimon Peres and put their minds together on building a light rail train that effectively connects Israeli cities and byways. That and encouraging Israelis to ride their bikes, walk to work where possible, work from home or ride share where possible, and lastly, to teach one another that Israel cannot support the white picket fence dreams of America. There is just not enough space.

TreeHugger has been following this story. The post, Israel Says Shalom To The Electric Car, is a good start and leads to a number of links electric car lovers will enjoy.

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