A clean-powered Better Place in Israel falls victim to environmentalists

Better Place’s electric car charging network in Israel won’t rely on much clean power at launch, Better Place CEO Shai Agassi tells me. That’s because Israel is caught up in the same battle that many clean power projects in the U.S. have faced: environmentalists opposing the construction of transmission lines.

Clean power companies trying to build large solar and wind farms in the deserts of the U.S. have long run up against opposition from environmentalists and local residents who don’t want large transmission lines running through protected lands and communities’ backyards. Turns out in Israel, despite its pro-solar stance, and new upcoming nationwide electric car charging network from startup Better Place, is getting caught in that mess, too.

At a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in San Francisco this week, I asked Better Place CEO Shai Agassi if his new electric car charging network in Israel, which is launching later this year, was going to utilize clean power. Back in early 2008, when Agassi announced the Israel project, he said in his speech that the grid infrastructure of his network will be powered by “batteries, that get their energy from green sustainable electricity sources.” Israel has an aggressive stance on promoting solar power, including supporting solar hot water heaters.

But Shai said that while he wanted the network to utilize clean power, the transmission lines needed to connect clean power to the grid to power the Better Place network, had hit a stand still after environmentalists had blocked the building of the lines over ground through certain areas. You can read up on some of the back and forth on the solar transmission lines in the Jerusalem Post. Agassi told me he would really like clean power to be part of the Israeli network, but that his hands are tied on the transmission lines right now.

The end result is that it looks like Better Place Israel won’t necessarily be run on clean power anytime soon. A similar situation has occurred for many of the large clean power projects, from Cape Wind, to BrightSource’s Ivanpah project (that one is moving ahead though).

And for some more positive news on Better Place’s Israel network, Agassi says that demand for the cars for Israel’s Better Place network are sold out for at least a year, practically for two years. The company is doing a controlled launch of the Israel network to make sure that nothing happens to degrade the customer experience. Israel is the first launch for Better Place — and essentially the perfect conditions for the company — and the company has to get the launch right, if it’s to succeed in other markets.