Can 'Captain Sunshine' save Better Place?

President of company responsible for country’s first commercial solar field may save electric car network.

YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The American-Israeli immigrant who illuminated the Arava desert with the country’s first commercial solar field may now be taking on an environmental mission to save the electric car network that the Better Place collapse left behind.
“Non-update update: cannot confirm or deny that this morning Captain Sunshine submitted to the Better Place liquidator an offer to assume the company’s assets, in the interest of making sure Start Up Nation is not stalled by the current failure of Better Place,” Yosef Abramowitz wrote on his Facebook wall on Sunday afternoon.
“We must support the current and future drivers of electric vehicles in Israel.”
Better Place filed for bankruptcy on May 26 and announced it was closing its doors. The liquidators charged with breaking up and selling the company’s assets and paying off its obligations in an orderly manner promised to keep its battery swapping stations open through June 13, but were still determining how many of them to keep running, if any, and for how long thereafter.
The company had less than $9 million in cash on hand when it filed for bankruptcy last Sunday, barely enough to cover its $7m. monthly expenses.
Also in question is how Better Place’s patents and intellectual property – held in a Swiss company that is, thus far, outside the reach of the liquidator – will play into any plans to rescue the charging infrastructure in Israel. While active, the firm only sold some 900 cars in Israel and 400 in Denmark.
Abramowitz – known among his colleagues as “Captain Sunshine” – is the co-founder and president of the Arava Power Company, which was responsible for Israel’s first on-grid, 4.95-megawatt solar field in Kibbutz Ketura two years ago. Most recently, he and his partners launched a Jerusalem-based firm called Energiya Global Capital, which is working towards establishing solar fields in developing nations all over the world. Any decision to save Israel’s currently faltering electric car network has absolutely no relation to either company, Abramowitz stressed.
“There are a lot of good people who are trying to come together right now to resuscitate the idea of [an] electric vehicle network in Israel and [one] that can not only survive the next two weeks, but can grow organically with the market,” Abramowitz told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday evening. “The drivers love the car – it reminds me of early Apple computer fanatics.”
Although Abramowitz confirmed that what he wrote in the Facebook message is true, he acknowledged that the offer is not a “fully-cooked” done deal, and that he and fellow investors “are still crunching numbers.”
“I need to get an indication from the government that they are willing to put in place certain basic benefits to show they want to encourage electric car use in the State of Israel,” Abramowitz said.
As one of the co-founders of the first medium-sized solar field, Abramowitz engaged with countless government offices over the course of five years in order to generate the regulations necessary to build and connect his solar field. However, in the electric car case, he said moving forward will require more than just government participation.
“I need to hear clearly from the owners of the cars that they want me to seriously explore this,” Abramowitz said. “It would be for green Zionist reasons and it would be on behalf of current owners of the cars and hopefully future ones. Without them I would drop out of considering it.”
While Abramowitz would not go into every detail of his prospective plans for continuing the electric car network, he said that the project would be “tremendously modest” and involving two or three strategic partnerships. The plans would be very basic and then grow organically.
Logistically, he explained, a number of battery switch stations would need to stay functional for those who want to travel long distances with their electric cars. All electric vehicles, however, would ideally be able to make use of the charging network and “any hint of some kind of monopoly would end,” he assured.
Meanwhile, many individuals interested in saving the Israeli electric car network have volunteered their professional services pro bono, Abramowitz added.
“There may not be a lot of goodwill toward corporate Better Place, but there’s an amazing amount of goodwill that electric cars have to come to Israel, and to preserve the asset that has been created.”
Abramowitz had not yet purchased a Better Place car of his own – nor any car for that matter – because he was troubled that the electricity powering the cars came from what he viewed as a “dirty grid,” lacking renewable resources. In order to secure his participation in the industry, this problem will need to be eventually rectified.
“If I’m going to be involved with the future electric car in [the] State of Israel, you can bet that renewable energy is going to be part of [the] equation, and maybe ultimately the solution to a big part of the charging,” Abramowitz said.
His experience as a solar entrepreneur could be increasingly valuable for achieving this purpose, he explained, because Israel is approaching grid parity – the point at which solar or other renewable energy sources are generating electricity at similar costs to more traditional fuels.
While Abramowitz acknowledged that the chances of this new venture succeeding “are not great,” he stressed that he would “rather have given it a try” than not. Meanwhile, he said that if the idea does end up making a profit, he does not want people to assume that “Abramowitz wants to come in and make a killing.”
“A) If I enter and B) if for some reason we make a lot of money, [my wife] and I would give it to Greenpeace, Green Course, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Adam Teva V’Din and others,” he said. “There’s been a big gap between the environmental movement and Better Place over the years. I’m not a tycoon, I’m not trying to be a tycoon and I will never be a tycoon.”
Emphasizing that he has “nothing to lose,” Abramowitz said that it is “in the national strategic interest” of the Israeli government to encourage the use of electric cars and the maintenance of a stable infrastructural network.
“We view it as an activist campaign to save the good name of Israel,” he added. “We can’t have the name of the ‘Start-up Nation’ to be stalled because of the failure of Better Place.”
Niv Elis contributed to this report.