Electric car plans zoom ahead  

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The SMH has a report on the rollout plans of electric vehicle service companies Better Place and ChargePoint in Australia - Electric car plans zoom ahead.

Perhaps it’s the tedium of traffic gridlock or our unreliable trains but transport seems to inspire utopian visions like few other of life’s chores.

Take the much-hyped “Segway personal transporter” and the miracle fuel cell that’s been promising to revolutionise transportation for a generation.

Now it’s the turn of the electric car - or rather, the return.

A century ago, more than a third of the motorcars on US roads were electric-powered. Then along came Henry Ford and his Model T, and the combustion engine has dominated ever since.

Electric motors, though, had advantages that remain today: zippy acceleration, mechanical simplicity, no exhaust and quiet operation.

Rapid technological advances, meanwhile, are overcoming some of the past limitations of battery technology – cost, range and recharge time. Add soaring petrol and diesel prices, and the era of mass electric car may finally be nigh.

“If you spend more than $80 a week on petrol, your next car will be an electric car,’’ predicts ex-internet entrepreneur Evan Thornley. “We think that of new car sales in 2020, about 25 per cent will be electric.’’

Thornley parked one fortune when he became the first Australian to list a company on the Nasdaq stock exchange – LookSmart - in 1999. In 2008, he quit Victorian state politics to chase another when he became chief of the Australian operations of Better Place.

The company is building plug-in points and other key infrastructure to serve an expected surge in electric vehicle (EV) demand.

Rivals in Australia include ChargePoint, which debuted last May with Australia's first public plug-in point and has some 30 installed now.

“You’ll find the uptake much higher than many expect,” says ChargePoint chief executive officer James Brown, adding that industry momentum is picking up towards an “inflection point”.

Carbon debate in overdrive

Better Place's local debut will come in Canberra later this year – just as the carbon tax debate enters overdrive.

Thornley welcomes the Gillard government’s plan to tax carbon emissions but doesn’t expect a big impact on his business.

‘’The economics of batteries and renewable energy are just overwhelming versus petrol,’’ he says. “But obviously, as governments move to put a price on carbon, that will lead to a further increase in the cost of dirtier energy sources and therefore a greater competitiveness for clean energy.’’

Better Place estimates energy costs for electric cars is 2-3 cents per kilometre, compared with 10-15 cents/km for petrol-powered cars, depending on the model.

Any carbon price would widen the gap - provided the electricity comes from renewable sources.

Better Place will start serving Canberra customers early next year once it’s installed sufficient plug-in points in car parks so drivers can recharge away from home. The company will open switching stations that allow drivers to swap depleted batteries with fully-charged ones by June 2012.

Sydney and Melbourne will see similar roll-outs in 2013, with a network covering 80 per cent of Australia by that year’s end.

ChargePoint is also starting small, with about 300 registered customers so far - not all of them active. Firms face a “chicken and egg” issue, since they need to invest in recharging points ahead of EVs' arrival, says CEO Brown.

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