Better Place’s Danish Dreams, Plus a Test Drive of Its First Electric Car

While I’ve been skeptical of electric vehicle infrastructure Better Place’s grand ambitions to sell EV service like cell phones and cover small countries with its network, there’s one region that is actually a good fit with Better Place’s EV dreams: Denmark. I sat down with some of Better Place’s team on the ground in Denmark at a hotel outside of the Copenhagen climate negotiations on Wednesday and took a test drive in the first car for the Renault Better Place partnership, the Fluence (the sedan-looking car in the photo to the left and below), which is supposed to come out in 2011.

Here’s Better Place’s basic strategy in Denmark: partner with the state-owned utility Dong Energy, who is also an investor in Better Place, offer Danish residents EVs that are cheaper than internal combustion cars (internal combustion engine cars in Denmark are over 100 percent taxed and very expensive) and appeal to the small size of the country and progressive residents. The pieces and partnerships all seem to fit, however, the hurdles ahead will be raising enough financing to build out the infrastructure and seeing how many Danish consumers sign up for the Better Place plan.

Better Place is using the backdrop of the Copenhagen climate summit as a way to show off its Danish plans and infrastructure. Better Place CEO Shai Agassi will be speaking at a variety of events, and the startup is giving test rides to partners and the press.

Better Place is already building out electric vehicle charging points around Denmark so that the small amount of Danish EV owners can start using the chargers and sign up for the service. Better Place’s Director of Communications in Denmark, Sara Helweg-Larsen, told us that there are currently 55 Better Place electric vehicle charging stations installed in Denmark (see photos of the prototype wall, pole and home charger below). Getting closer to 2011, when Renault and Better Place will commercially launch the Fluence, Better Place will start adding in its battery swap stations. Helweg-Larsen said she couldn’t estimate how many EV chargers and swap stations the country would need, but said that the buildout would be fine tuned to how many subscribers sign up.

In January of this year Better Place announced that it had raised €103 million ($135.8 million) in financing for the electric car-charging network in the country. Building out Better Place’s infrastructure across Denmark will cost more than that — Better Place has said to get Israel’s EV network up and running it’ll cost $200 million. Israel is about half the square kilometers of Denmark.

At the Danish funding press conference Better Place CEO Shai Agassi said an additional €35 million or so will be needed to get the Danish network going. Better Place’s Corporate Communications manager Guryan Tighe says that Better Place has ongoing financing efforts in Denmark but nothing it’s willing to disclose at this time.

By 2011 Better Place hopes to have enough infrastructure built out so that its first vehicles from the Renault car partnership will be able to operate smoothly. I took a test drive of a prototype of the Fluence, and it drove and felt pretty much like a standard sedan, only a lot quieter. I was actually surprised at how mainstream it felt. It was roomy inside, started and stopped like a standard automatic car with a key insert (not even the high-tech button start like the Prius) and had luxuries like GPS and the info dashboard. One exception is that it was apparent how much the system relied on software after the first Fluence we got in had a software glitch and wouldn’t start (it’s a prototype, with over a year to release).

I switched spots with my tour guide Enrique so that he could take a drive and I could grab this short Flip video below (about 2 minutes long):

Photos below are of Renault’s Zoe, which it was showing off in demo form only (no test rides) in Copenhagen along with the Fluence.