With more attention being paid to the risks of global warming, a growing awareness of the effects of car exhaust emissions like lung disease and photochemical smog and this summer’s massive gas price hikes still fresh in our minds, many people are clamoring for a politically feasible solution to the problem of our dependence on oil. In California, an ambitious billion-dollar plan by the startup company Better Place to install an electric-car grid hopes to show the United States what is possible with existing technologies. More importantly, it could soon render most arguments against a new electric-based auto industry moot.

The Better Place plan builds on a set of cars from Renault-Nissan that work with existing lithium ion batteries, like those in your laptop or the upcoming Chevy Volt. These cars can travel approximately 40 miles on one charge, which can be a little inconvenient for drivers. But here’s the beauty of the Better Place plan: Drivers who pay per mile for the service own the cars at a discount, and Better Place owns the batteries. Instead of relying on lengthy charging periods, Better Place circumvents the problem by building stations that swap out drained batteries for a fresh ones in a couple of minutes. Drivers get to stay in their cars and have more flexibility to charge their cars away from their homes.

But this simple solution isn’t only convenient for commuters. With banks of batteries stored at charging stations, Better Place can charge the drained batteries whenever it is most convenient for the company and the electric companies. This eases the burden on the power grid and puts Better Place in a good position to leverage deals to buy electricity at discounted rates.

Going further, the increased flexibility that comes with the Better Places plan will allow the company to take advantage of other energy sources. If such a system were tied to clean energy sources, for example, having an excess of charged batteries at any given time for the electric car system would mean that even unreliable sources of electricity like wind and solar power could be used to charge batteries. This way you are both eliminating emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants and cars.

The cities involved, for their part, are not going to end up paying for the program. Instead, while Better Place collects its own venture capital to create the required infrastructure, the government will provide permits to expedite the creation of charging stations in parking lots and homes besides the battery replacing stations in 200 locations and will encourage users of the system to benefit from government tax incentives on clean car technologies. This kind of partnership of private funds with government cooperation is a model that both parties want.

The Better Place plan isn’t perfect, though. For one, it beholds people to one company for their transportation. Additionally, the plan focuses on the San Francisco Bay area, meaning that drivers making long trips outside the area will still need to use gasoline or make lengthy stops to re-charge.

There are a few things that need to happen for a plan like Better Place to work nationwide. Most importantly, automakers would need to agree to some kind of standards for batteries so they could be interchanged across brands — think about how the same ties work on a range of vehicles or the same gas nozzle fits into every car on the road. Electric propulsion also needs to emerge as the primary replacement for the internal combustion engine. It’s currently vying with other technologies — like hydrogen fuel cells — for that spot.

In the meantime, companies like Better Place are offering a way to move toward a cleaner infrastructure than we have now, without massive sacrifices by the government and taxpayers.

Ben Caleca is an Engineering junior.

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