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Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.
If Shai Agassi's vision comes true, within a decade more than 100,000 Israelis may be plugging their cars into electric sockets for recharging before turning in for the night, benefiting from immense savings in fuel, and firmly pushing Israel into a top spot as one of the most environmentally friendly nations on earth.
Agassi is not an armchair theorist. He is the initiator of a new venture that has impressed the top leadership of Israel to such an extent that on January 21 he was feted within a space of hours at both the Prime Minister's Office and the President's Residence. Bearing a shy smile, Agassi stepped up to the podium next to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and noted, "It is not typical and a rather humbling moment for the founder of a small start-up to share a stage with the prime minister of his country."
But given that he has, within a year, raised $200 million and signed a memorandum of understanding with Carlos Ghosn, President and CEO of Renault-Nissan, the fourth largest motor car producer in the world, to partner with his venture, he can hardly be considered simply the founder of yet another small start-up.
The plan put forth by Project Better Place, Agassi's company, envisages Israel serving as the world's first true mass-market for electric cars, beginning in 2011. With Renault supplying the electric vehicles, Nissan making the batteries, Project Better Place putting up recharging and battery replacement stations throughout the country, and the Israeli government reducing the consumer cost of buying electric cars by eliminating taxes on them, the hope is that tens of thousands of electric cars will be sold in Israel every year.
Ghosn has promised that "the end price for consumers of the electric cars sold in Israel will be equal, or less than, the price for a comparable standard model." Purchasers of electric cars can also expect to save money over the lifetime of the car, because per mile driven, gasoline and diesel cost several more times than electricity, and the price of electricity is subject to fewer fluctuations.
The planned scale is unprecedented - previous electric-car marketing tests have generally been limited to a few hundred cars. If Better Place's project is successful - a large if - Israel will be catapulted to the forefront of countries transitioning from a dependence on oil into the era of "green technology," at a time when there is intense international interest in the development of environmentally-friendly technologies. Israel, of course, has a special interest in cutting world oil consumption, as President Shimon Peres noted in a speech he gave praising Agassi's project. "Oil," said Peres, "is the world's greatest financier of terrorism."
Critics have noted, however, that because most of Israel's electricity is produced by burning coal, the saving in carbon emissions from the tailpipes of cars will be largely offset by increased electricity production, despite hopes that renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal or solar energy can eventually replace coal-produced electricity. Olmert devoted part of his speech at the project's press conference to advocating the development of solar energy to exploit "Israel's powerful sun." However, according to most experts, cost-effective industrial-level green electricity is far from becoming generally available.
Agassi, 39 years of age, has
a proven track record as a technology high-flier. He completed a BS in Computer Science at the Technion in Haifa while still in his teens, prior to service in the IDF. In 1992, he and his father co-founded TopTier Software in Israel, later moving it to Silicon Valley in California. TopTier grew into a leading enterprise portal vendor. After it was acquired by German business software giant SAP in April 2001 for $400 million, Agassi rapidly rose to senior positions at SAP, where his role as head of the Products and Technology Group was so substantial that Time and CNN regularly listed him as one of the most influential executives in the software world.
Agassi was rumored to be a leading candidate for the position of CEO of SAP last year, but he abruptly resigned from the executive board in March 2007, stating that he intended to shift the focus of his work from computer technology to 'environmentally friendly' concerns, and founded Project Better Place in Palo Alto, California, a few months later.
His vision for the mass introduction of electric vehicles to Israel, however, had begun germinating much earlier. "A few years ago I started thinking about this problem: How can you run an entire country without depending on oil," says Agassi. A year ago, during one of his frequent visits to Israel in his role as an SAP executive, he shared his ideas with Olmert. Olmert indicated that he found the boldness of the vision compelling and possibly worthy of Israeli government support but he "set ground rules that were very clear," according to Agassi. "Find the money to fund this vision, outside the government - the state is not a venture capitalist. And find one of the world's greatest car companies that will build this great electric car, and can build it on a mass-market scale."
Agassi took Olmert's words as a blueprint for action. Project Better Place garnered a first round of funding to the tune of $200 million, with investments from the Israel Corporation, Morgan Stanley, VantagePoint Venture Partners, and a group of individual private investors managed by Michael Granoff, which includes former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, Edgar Bronfman, Sr. and Musea Ventures. And it entered negotiations with Renault-Nissan to serve as the mass-market supplier of electric vehicles that culminated in Renault CEO Ghosn's trip to Israel, in January, to sign the memorandum of understanding. Israel's Chief Scientist's Office, a division of the trade and industry ministry, will be providing some of the funding for research and development, and Project Better Place plans to begin initial testing of its business model by the end of 2008.
Project Better Place's press releases stress the extent to which replacing conventional internal combustion cars with electric cars will contribute to reducing climate change caused by the emission of carbon-dioxide molecules into the earth's atmosphere during the process of burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. The carbon-dioxide buildup is, in theory, responsible for a "greenhouse" effect in which energy from the sun penetrates the atmosphere's carbon-dioxide on the way into the earth, but heat rising from the earth is trapped, causing worldwide temperature rises.
Extract from article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.
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