Good energy: Bitter Place

Agassi took on an entire industry based on oil and put Israel on the map to model for the world the idea that cars don’t need gas.

May 27, 2013 20:37
3 minute read.
Nadav in Better Place car

Nadav in Better Place car_390. (photo credit: Nadav Shemer)

With the liquidation of Better Place, Big Oil and oil-exporting autocratic regimes are celebrating.

This is bad for the world and troublesome for Israel.

The accelerated pace of carbon-dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, recently topping 400 parts per million for the first time in 4 million years, signals that carbon-disruptive ideas like Better Place were hatched too late. And that even after burning $810 million, energy-transformative endeavors either need far more cash or need to scale more efficiently. Or both.

The winners are all the entrenched oil interests, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Detroit and China, and the downstream industries their petro-dollars support worldwide. As long as Iran, for example, can export oil profitably, Hamas, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad can have their weapons underwritten by the oil addictions of the regular oil consumers of the world.

The losers are not just the investors in Better Place but the environment, future energy-disruptive ideas and all of us, who remain part of the problem when we fill up our gas tanks with tainted energy and have no alternative.

The leadership at Better Place were driven not just by profits but by a revolutionary notion that making the world a better place requires a business plan, international business partnerships, customers and oodles of for-profit cash. If Shai Agassi would have donated $1 million from his considerable personal fortune that he earned to build a pilot of one charging station and one car, it would not have represented a game changer in the energy industry but a cute idea. Instead, he took on an entire industry based on oil consumption and put Israel on the map to model for the world the disruptive idea that cars don’t need gas.

Just because the company has failed doesn’t mean the core ideas don’t have merit or that other energy-disruptive ideas wont take off. But the barriers to entry will now be higher, investors will be more cynical, and overhead allocations will have to be more modest, especially in the early years.

There was a moment in time when it was believable that Israel could lead the way to become the first carbon-neutral country on the planet. With two-thirds of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions produced by conventional power plants, and one-third by transportation, a coordinated attack on the status quo by the renewable-energy industry and the electric-car industry could have increased the chances of success for both. Instead, each fended for itself, with now the dissolution of Better Place and the Treasury, with an incentive from the natural-gas companies, stalling a massive rollout of solar-power energy plants.

I, like many, brought my family to the visitors center for a test drive of the electric car. And I, like many, let Better Place know I was holding back on buying into their system until I was able to charge my car with Israel’s plentiful sun.

Transferring my car’s pollution from where I live to the good people who live and get sick in the vicinity of the dirty power stations in Ashdod and Ashkelon was not a solution that I or other environmentalists were willing to support. I didn’t want to plug into one of the Western world’s dirtiest electric grids, especially since we have a sunny alternative in Israel.

The crash of Better Place is a sad day for Israel and for “Start-up Nation” because the concept and brand so associated with making the world a better place through a business has failed.

Those of us who devote our lives to pursuing a double bottom line – doing well by doing good – need to learn from the mistakes of Better Place and differentiate for our investors from their failed business model.

Israel still could be a renewable light unto the nations. Some group could pick up for pennies on the dollar the Better Place infrastructure and cars, grow the new business plan in concert with the renewable-energy industry and take the longer, uphill drive toward modest yet profitable growth. Only sweet success, even modest success, is the only solution to today’s bitter place for the noble idea of an electric-car network.

The writer was named by CNN as one of the planet’s leading Green Pioneers for his solar-power enterprises.

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