Obama Eyeing Better Place?

Electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place has been raking in headlines for the past several weeks with its announcements of partnerships with Hawaii, the California Bay Area, and Japan. But there’s a considerably more speculative report out recently from the Jerusalem Post, quoting Better Place Chairman Idan Ofer saying that President-elect Obama is closely looking at and “may be adopting” Better Place’s electric vehicle infrastructure plan.

Ofer tells the Post that he is anticipating that Obama will use electric vehicles to rescue the auto industry, and that announcements from the Obama administration on that subject “will have come from us.” (Not exactly sure what that means). Ofer also says that a U.S. auto manufacturer is currently building a team to work on the planned project.

While it’s likely that Obama’s incoming team is investigating the startup’s plan — given the administration’s emphasis on renewable energy and green jobs — it sounds like Ofer is still largely talking about early discussions between the administration and Better Place — not a partnership or a deal. If Obama’s team hadn’t been talking to Better Place, I’d be really surprised, as Better Place’s CEO Shai Agassi is a bit of a media darling. Also, remember that, even when some of these deals with cities, states and countries are announced, they aren’t necessarily approved by local bodies (Bay Area), and some are just trials (Japan).

Don’t get me wrong, Better Place is an exciting startup. I just think it would be a shame for readers to think that these announced deals and partnerships mean that there are not major hurdles to deploying networks in those locations. Financing for the networks is supposed to come from a public-private partnership, but the recession has handicapped budgets like San Francisco’s, as well as knocked the wind out of private financing.

If T. Boone Pickens can’t get funding for a less risky wind farm, financing an entirely unproven business model around electric vehicles is going to be rather difficult. Agassi has said — in a speech with a direct shoutout for the incoming administration — that a network for the whole U.S. would cost $100 billion. Obama is planning to spend billions on green jobs and green infrastructure; could Better Place somehow have a winning lottery ticket for the green stimulus? We’re waiting to hear back from Better Place.