Better Place Plugs Into the Chinese Power Grid

Electric vehicle battery-swapping evangelist Better Place is digging in deeper in the world’s biggest electric car market to come: China. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup has a deal with China’s Southern Power Grid, the country’s second largest and the world’s eighth-largest utility, to try out both battery swapping and old-fashioned plug-in charging in a city-wide network by year’s end.

The move follows Better Place’s deal announced last year with Chinese car company Chery to collaborate on electric vehicle technology, to develop electric vehicle prototypes with switchable-batteries and to seek work with the Chinese government on electric vehicle pilot projects.

Better Place already has projects underway in Israel, Denmark and Japan, and has looked to raise money to start ones in Australia, Ontario, Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area. But China could represent a whole new level of scale for Better Place’s unorthodox battery-swapping infrastructure.

That’s because the project in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou includes promises by city officials to “encourage” local car manufacturers, such as the state-owned Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group (GAIG), to produce cars with batteries that can be swapped out, using Better Place’s undercarriage battery removal and replacement process. Given the close ties between state and private enterprise in China, I wouldn’t be surprised if the encouragement comes more like an executive order.

So far, Renault’s s Fluence Z.E. is the only mass-manufactured EV built with batteries designed to be swapped by Better Place, though the French automaker and its Japanese partner, Nissan, have said they’re exploring the idea of more. Tesla (s TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has said the Tesla Model S will be built with some kind of swapping capability in mind, though he hasn’t named Better Place as a would-be partner.

AS for GAIG, it’s the sixth-largest automaker in China, churning out hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year for domestic markets. Just how many new battery-swappable models to come from those production lines remains to be seen, of course.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi (one of our Earth2Tech Top 15 Connected Car Influencers) said last year that the startup, with about $750 million in VC investment raised to date, would be seeking new markets “in Europe and Asia.”

Better Place will also supply traditional plug-in chargers in its Guangzhou pilot, as it has with its charge points in Israel, Denmark and elsewhere. While battery swapping could recharge cars in minutes instead of hours, giving EV drivers freedom from “range anxiety,” they face a host of technical and economic barriers. Cars need to be built to work with them, and the question of who owns the batteries — and the costs associated with being responsible for them — is an important one.

Building the charging, or swapping, network to support significant numbers of EVs on the road is a major task. Corporate partnerships, including Cisco’s link-up with car charging company ECOTality (s CSCO), Siemens’ co-marketing deal with Coulomb Technologies and General Electric’s pilots with Better Place (s GE), are laying the groundwork to try to churn these things out as cheaply as we churn out corner gas stations today.

Image courtesy of Janus Sandsgaard via Creative Commons license.