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Why a Better Place Network in Cali Will Look Very Different Than Israel, Denmark

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Earlier this week electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place raised one of the largest rounds of financing in the cleantech sector ever, to help build out networks in regions like Israel and Denmark. On the day of the announcement I wondered (out loud) whether Better Place was still moving forward on its plans for California’s Bay Area and across the state — plans that were announced with great fanfare at the end of 2008.

Well, I got a chance to talk to Better Place’s VP of North America, Jason Wolf, shortly after this week’s funding announcement, and he made it clear that Better Place still intends to start installing a set of charging points in the Bay Area in 2010 — that’s the plan anyway, said Wolf, who also added that sometimes plans change. But it’s also clear that a potential Better Place network in the Bay Area will look very different than the networks that the startup is aggressively building out with government partners in Israel and Denmark.

One of the biggest reasons for a slower, more cautious electric vehicle infrastructure environment in California is that there’s been a lack of clarity from the California Public Utilities Commission when it comes to how (and if) the state will regulate companies like Better Place, which plan to sell electricity to drivers through the network of battery-charging stations. The CPUC is currently debating the topic, but that lack of clarity has made investors — the kind that just put $350 million into Better Place — less eager to move quickly to back a Bay Area network, said Wolf.

Wolf, of course, argues for less regulation from California in terms of the nascent EV-charging market. “At the early stages of this industry, we encourage the commission to set rules that do not foreclose new business models,” Wolf wrote in a filing last year with the commission (via Todd Woody in Green Inc).

Beyond regulation, another major difference between the Better Place poster projects Denmark and Israel, is that the Bay Area seems to be moving more toward a collaborative electric vehicle charging approach, not an emphasis on a Better Place solution. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told us this week that “Here in San Francisco we are working with Better Place and other companies to obtain grant funding to start putting a network of EV charging infrastructure in the Bay Area.”

In addition to these hurdles, there’s other policy differences between the Bay Area and Denmark and Israel. The Danish and Israeli governments have incentives in place to make plug-in vehicles in Denmark and Israel close to competitive to internal combustion vehicles, and while California has some great incentives, it doesn’t yet go that far. While we’re looking forward to checking out a small amount of Better Place chargers in the Bay Area in 2010, don’t expect to see a ubiquitous Better Place network in the Bay Area anytime soon.