By all accounts, Shai Agassi, the founder and original CEO of Better Place,
Israel’s bankrupt electric car company, is an extremely charismatic man. His
charm had politicians, venture capitalists, celebrities and non-automotive
industry reporters slobbering over him. Everyone wanted to get their picture
taken with the man who would transform Israel’s auto industry into the first
electric powered industry in the world and transform the start-up nation into
the transportation hothouse for the world.
Agassi’s vision was simple and
easy to understand.
By 2020, half of Israel’s cars would be battery
powered electric cars supplied by his company, Better Place. We would replace
our internal combustion engines, powered by oil produced by our worst enemies,
with batteries produced by Better Place. Better Place would overcome the
technological deficits of batteries that are only capable of powering a car for
short distances by building battery changing stations throughout the country.
Instead of filling up our tanks with gas, we would replace our
And our enemies would go bankrupt.
The only ones not
convinced by Agassi’s plans were people who actually understand the car market
generally and the Israeli car market in particular.
reporters warned as early as 2008 that Israeli drivers would need incentives to
buy into a new technology. Cars in Israel are prohibitively expensive. The
government charges 82 percent customs duties on imported cars. If electric cars
could be cheap cars, then they had a chance of succeeding.
To help Better
Place succeed, the government gave the company a massive discount on import
taxes. Better Place, which signed a deal with Renault to produce a
battery-charged model of the Fluence family car, paid only 10% import duties for
Instead of passing the savings off on its customers, Better
Place cars cost the same amount as regular gasoline powered cars. And that’s not
including the cost of the battery or the monthly subscription to Better Place
battery charging services.
So there was no economic incentive to buy the
Many have chalked the failure of Better Place up to its poor
management. And no doubt Agassi’s management skills didn’t hold a candle to his
skill as a salesman. The company’s business model was an incoherent study in
overreach and hubris.
But the fact remains, the car was too
And that makes some sense. Building a whole national
infrastructure for electric cars is expensive.
The only incentives Better
Place gave consumers were ideological. And as it worked out, only 900 people
were willing to pay full price to own a car whose actual battery life was
between 100 and 120 kilometers, just to reduce their carbon footprint or to
screw the Arabs.
To summarize, the government gave Better Place a massive
tax break. Investors poured $840 million into the company. The media showered
the company in fabulous free PR.
And in four years, it only managed to
sell 900 cars.
That tells you something about economics.
rule of supply and demand is foolproof.
If the price is too high, people
won’t buy your product. And if the ticket price of being the pioneers in a risky
market, of having to go out of your way to get to the battery swap stations, and
of swapping your battery three to four times more often than you have to fill up
your gas tank is the same as the price of a normal car, then no one will want to
be a pioneer. And no one did.
Indeed, according to Channel 2, more than a
hundred of the 900 owners of Better Place cars worked for the company. And the
majority of the other owners purchased the electric car as a second or third
People warn that Better Place’s failure will harm the reputation of
Israel’s hi-tech economy.
But these warnings make little sense. Better
Place wasn’t a hi-tech firm. It was an electric car company. And it wasn’t
selling new technology.
It simply packaged old failed technology in a new
What failed with Better Place wasn’t the idea of Israeli hi-tech
prowess and ingenuity. What failed – again – was the notion that there is a way
to use alternative energy sources – like electricity – to replace the internal
combustion engine. And there isn’t. There isn’t because laws of supply and
demand govern the economics of the car industry even when Shai Agassi is the one
selling alternative economic laws.
One of the attractive aspects of the
alternative fuels market is that it allows people who care about security to
partner with radical environmentalists who oppose the consumption of
No other issue brings far-right security hawks together with
far-left environmentalists. And while most environmentalists are unmoved by the
presence of conservative hawks in their coalitions, conservatives are overjoyed
at the opportunity to rub shoulders with members of Greenpeace and the Sierra
Club. Maybe one of the reasons that many security hawks remain enamored of
alternative fuels despite their clear inability to replace oil on an open market
is because they are unwilling to abandon their one common cause with the
But the time has come to abandon the
Israel has the means to achieve energy independence
and pave the way for the free world to neutralize the economic power of the
Unlike the situation with Better Place, economic laws of
supply and demand work in favor of Israel’s energy solution. The only force
standing in the way is a coalition of radical environmentalists who oppose all
oil consumption because they believe that the greatest threat to the world is
global warming. They don’t want cheap oil.
They want oil at $500/barrel.
They don’t want clean oil at cheap prices. They want us all to live in crowded
cities, become vegetarians and travel around on mass transit or ride
Four years ago, Israel discovered that it is sitting on top of
a massive amount of oil. South of Jerusalem, in the Shfela Basin beginning
around 15 km. from Kiryat Gat, Israel has an estimated 150 billion barrels of
oil – or 60% of Saudi Arabia’s reserve capacity. The oil is located in shale
rock located 300 meters below ground. It is separated from Israel’s underground
aquifer by 200 meters of impermeable rock on either side.
If tapped into,
Israel’s domestic oil supply could provide us with energy independence for
hundreds of years. At the initial stage, we could produce enough to satisfy
entirely the IDF’s fuel requirements – 50,000 barrels a day. And we could refine
it at Ashdod without even having to expand our refining capacities. In later
stages, we could produce enough oil to satisfy the entire country’s consumption
needs of 80 million barrels a year.
A visit with the senior executives of
Israel Energy Initiatives is frustrating journey into Israel’s political
pathologies. IEI holds the license to develop Israel’s shale oil deposit. CEO
Relik Shafir, a retired air force brigadier- general, explains that due to a
well-funded campaign of radical environmentalists directed by Greenpeace in
Turkey, IEI has entered a “Kafkaesque regulatory universe,” where a pilot
project to demonstrate its technology has been held up for four
First through petitions to the Supreme Court spearheaded by the
far-left, New Israel Fund-supported Adam Teva V’Din environmentalist movement,
IEI’s pilot project was delayed for a year. The pilot, which will take three
years, involves demonstrating IEI’s technology for oil extraction by extracting
500 barrels from a test area south of Beit Shemesh.
The Supreme Court
found in favor of IEI, but required the government to rewrite the law governing
oil explorations. Radical environmentalists at the Environmental Protection
Ministry coupled with incompetent bureaucrats at the Ministries of Justice,
Energy and Interior delayed the project for another three years by delaying the
Now the law has passed. And all that stands between IEI
and the pilot program is the Jerusalem Planning Board. The board will likely
begin deliberations on the plans in the fall.
IEI’s chief scientist,
Dr. Harold Vinegar, worked as chief scientist for Royal Dutch Shell. There Vinegar
developed the technology for shale oil extraction. To transform the shale rock
into liquid crude oil, shale oil needs to be heated to 300 degrees Celsius.
Heated at that temperature, in three years, the rocks melt into liquid fuel that
is extracted through production wells.
Vinegar developed the means to
heat the rocks inside the earth with heaters dropped 300 meters. Due to the
shale rock’s isolation from the aquifers, and the fact that 9 meters from the
heated area, the rock temperature remains 25 degrees Celsius, IEI’s technologies
will have no impact on the environment, either below or above the
The basic rationale of the environmentalists’ campaign against
IEI’s pilot is to kill Israel’s ability to develop its oil fields before the
public realizes what is involved. Once the pilot is approved, assuming it lives
up to IEI’s projections that it will be able to mass produce oil at $40/barrel,
public support for the initiative will be so great, and the economic logic of
moving forward will be so overwhelming, that the project with be
Unlike Better Place, IEI won’t need a charismatic salesman
from Silicon Valley to sell its product.
Today Israel pays $100 per
barrel for Brent crude, or NIS 2.2 per liter. Consumers pay NIS 8 per liter at
the gas pump, which includes refining and transport costs and taxes. If Israel
produced its own fuel, although the government would certainly continue to
overtax it, and it would still need to be refined and transported, there can be
little doubt that the price for consumers would be significantly lower. And most
important, the supply would be guaranteed.
One of the IEI’s minor
investors is Australian news mogul Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is interested in IEI
because there are also massive deposits of oil shale in Australia. If IEI’s
pilot is successful, Australia will doubtlessly follow Israel’s lead in
developing its own energy independence through oil shale
Unlike the situation with Better Place, there is no hype
surrounding IEI – except the negative hype generated by the radical
For an oil company sitting on the license area
covering an estimated 40 billion barrels of oil, IEI’s appearance is shockingly
modest. Whereas Better Place wasted tens of millions on glamorous offices and a
huge workforce, IEI office suites are as plain as can be. President Effi Eitam,
former minister of national infrastructure, works in a tiny, cluttered office
and sits behind a nondescript desk on an inexpensive chair. Employees work in
IEI has not waged a campaign to counter the environmentalist
propaganda because it believes that the facts will speak for themselves. The
minute IEI is able to run its pilot, it is convinced that the public will back
it. Whether or not this is the proper strategy will be determined in the coming
months by the Jerusalem Planning Committee.
In the meantime, due to shale
oil fracking, the US has moved from net oil importer to net oil exporter in five
years. In the same period, Israel has seen IEI’s pilot delayed year after year
as politicians and reporters have followed alternative fuel pied pipers into