Better Place to Build First U.S. Electric Vehicle Network in Bay Area

 

Updated Bay Area leaders are attempting to use a combination of public and private investment to turn the region into the Electric Vehicle Capital of the U.S., and Silicon Valley’s Better Place will play a key role in building out a $1 billion electric vehicle charging infrastructure. This will be Better Place’s first foray into the U.S. market. A group of politicians, including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, along with Better Place execs founder and CEO Shai Agassi and VantagePoint Venture Partners advisor and partner Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., made the announcement today at San Francisco’s city hall. (California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had planned to attend the announcement, but he was pulled away for budget meetings.)

This is a massive win for Better Place. The startup says that it will start building a California electric vehicle charging network, starting with the Bay Area, and will use a similar investment model to Israel, Denmark and Australia. The Bay Area network will total $1 billion in investment when fully deployed, and the company says a “mass market availability of electric cars” will be ready by 2012. That figure makes Agassi’s previous $1.5 billion estimate for a network for all of California sound rather low. Better Place says network planning and permitting will start as soon as January 2009, and infrastructure deployment could begin in 2010.

The mayors announced policy initiatives (more on these later today) that would help deliver this monumental task of getting more electric vehicles on Bay Area roads, charging stations in cities and battery-swap stations along the highways. The mayors say that they will start in December to work with city organizations and private sector partners on different ways to help deliver electric transportation powered by renewable energy.

It’s unclear what other regions in California will get a Better Place network. But Governor Schwarzenegger said in the release that the state is “taking the lead in the move to electric transportation powered by renewable energy,” and he added “I’m confident that Californians, who love their cars, will love zero emission vehicles even more, so long as they’re fast, fun and affordable.” Well, the “affordable” part will likely play the largest factor in that decision, given these difficult economic times.

Speaking of counting pennies, the recession played a key role in the language of the group’s announcement. The group paints the picture that the public-private partnership will stimulate an economic recovery and “will serve as an economic and environmental stimulus blueprint for the entire country, particularly the nation’s lagging automotive sector.” Potentially, but it will largely depend on whether or not Bay Area car owners will buy into this or not.

Interestingly absent from the press release is the Nissan-Renault alliance, which is supplying cars for Better Place’s other networks. Perhaps that was just an oversight (we’ll update with more on this), but Nissan-Renault made its own electric vehicle charging announcement about Oregon yesterday.

On the red carpet set up outside City Hall this afternoon, Nissan’s concept electric SUV (decked out with the Better Place logo) featured prominently, flanked by plug-ins from the San Francisco municipal fleet. Inside the press conference, Detroit automakers shared some of the spotlight, where several speakers noted the “very interesting” backdrop against which today’s announcement took place. While Kennedy criticized companies now asking for cash to continue business as usual — and the lawmakers inclined to give it to them — Agassi called for cooperation, saying, “We need to stop the conversation of whether this is Detroit vs. Silicon Valley.”

Even with the backing of Bay Area mayors, Agassi’s vision still needs approval to come to fruition. If permitters share State Assemblyman Mark Leno’s view, that process should be a relatively smooth one. “No tailpipe, no engine, no emissions, no noise — Mr. Mayor,” he said, turning to Newsom. “Your initiative is a no-brainer.”

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