INTERVIEW: Shai Agassi and the power of EVs

By just-auto.com editorial team | 21 August 2008

Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Project Better Place, talks to just-auto about his belief that electric cars have a far greater role than simply lowering emissions from road transport.

The electrification of the car now seems inevitable. A 100% plus increase in the price of oil since the start of 2007 has wreaked havoc within the industry. In the world's largest new car market of the US, for example, it has sparked an unprecedented sales shift away from less fuel efficient cars which has left millions of larger vehicles with plummeting residual values and gaping holes in many carmakers' balance sheets.

Stricter emissions legislation, on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed elsewhere, will be increasingly difficult to meet with the traditional internal combustion engine. Societal pressure alone, not to mention ever-worsening air quality in the world's largest cities, is making it almost impossible for car-makers to resist the lure of 'zero-emission' vehicles. At the same time, advances in battery technology, particularly in the area of lithium ion, are bringing electric vehicles (EVs) to within closer reach than ever before.

Many would say that EVs are no silver bullet solution, however. What effect would a mass shift towards EVs have on electricity generation? Wouldn't it heap even more pressure on already stressed-out and over-utilised energy grids? Where would the additional power needed to fuel these cars come from, and can such cars really be considered ultra low-emission if that additional power comes, for example, from coal-fired power stations?

One person who seems to have some answers is Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Silicon-Valley start-up Project Better Place, which has joined forces with Renault and Nissan in what is starting to look like the most comprehensive and inspired EV programme of its kind.

"I thought in the beginning of hydrogen, biofuels, all of the ideas you hear about all the time. I went down every possible path, and researched every single one of them," Agassi tells just-auto. "I checked out every science around them and it just didn't add up. That's how I got to electricity."

"Even if the electricity is generated from coal, EVs' CO2 emissions are cut by at least 40% and road-level emissions by 100%, so you cut out smog completely," he maintains.

There's no shortage of electricity either, Agassi says.

"If you take any country, it doesn't really matter which, and convert it off oil and onto electric, you add 6% electricity demand on the grid. Most of that extra demand comes at off-peak hours. Studies show that if 84% of the 200 million cars on US roads converted to electric, the grid would be able to support all of those cars without a single additional powerplant. That just shows how much excess capacity we've got, especially at off-peak hours."

With just a small amount of renewable energy generation, in which Agassi pledges to invest in those markets that sign up to his programme, the issue of additional demand is completely solved, he says.

"If we added just half a percent of renewable electricity generation every year to a market for the next ten years, that would be enough to take us off oil completely." Every market has its own renewable capabilities that Project Better Place can work with, he believes, whether it be wind, tidal, solar or nuclear.

EVs are better suited to renewable power than other applications which require their energy 'on demand' says Agassi. The EVs that Renault and Nissan will build, for example, will use statistical models which track the car's usage patterns, thus enabling the time of recharge to be fitted in with the utility company's lowest usage times, whenever possible. To give an example, this means that the car would 'know' if it was parked at work or at home overnight and likely to stay there for the next eight hours, giving some flexibility with how quickly it needed to be recharged. Equally, it would know if it was in a location which it did not visit regularly, which would lead to the car being charged immediately.

"We will actually be able to control the time of charge and by aggregating all of the connected cars onto the grid we optimise the time of charge so as to align with the utility company more than with the individual user preference," Agassi explains. "What you will see is that most of the cars will be plugged in at night, but not all of them will start charging immediately." If the driver does need to charge the car immediately and so wishes to override delayed charging, this, of course, will be possible. Likewise, the time of recharge can, to a large degree, be fitted in around renewable energy generation. "Let's say that the wind stops blowing between 2 and 3am in the morning, then that's not a problem, we just won't charge the batteries during that time."

The most exciting part of this proposition, however, is the storage capabilities that the new generation of lithium ion batteries look set to offer.

"If you talk to grid operators and utility companies, they'll tell you that the one thing they really need is lots of batteries. There's nothing that can improve the grid better than a distributed storage mechanism." Agassi explains that this means that when a car that is plugged in - whilst the driver is at work for example -small amounts of energy could be discharged from its battery to help out the grid in peak usage times. That energy would then be returned to the battery once demand has died back down.

When combined with renewable energy generation, this proposition becomes even more alluring and it is easy to see how it could transform the future of renewable energy.

"The problem is with a lot of renewable power that it is intermittent," Agassi points out.

"So for many applications, if you put in a gigawatt of wind power, for example, you also have to put in a gigawatt of coal to back it up. That makes it an almost irrational decision." However, lithium ion batteries could be used to economically store renewable power at peak-generating but low-usage times and then give that energy back to the grid when it is needed.

"My only fear is that we started too late to solve these problems," Agassi concludes. "If we all understood the severity of the problem - if oil were to reach US$200 a barrel for example - and what that would do to the global economy, then we might get a lot more support and a lot less scepticism around the only solution today that shows a way to scale out of the problem we've got."

Rebecca Wright

See also: EMERGING MARKETS ANALYSIS: Charging toward a Better Place


Shai Agassi

Shai Agassi is the founder and CEO of Better Place, a company focused on the early 21st century's biggest challenge - a scalable and sustainable personal transportation system. In this role, Agassi works directly with governments, finance, automobile manufacturers and technology companies to install, scale, and operate a regional and global infrastructure necessary for electronic vehicles.

With a personal passion in solving large-scale social and environmental issues, Agassi believes in utilising technology and capital markets to address the challenges of sustainability and climate change. With Better Place, he will manage the operation of international electric vehicle fleets by investing in, installing and operating countrywide charging infrastructures for electric cars, as well as working with partners to make the cars available.

Since the company's launch, Israel has announced that it will be the first to implement the Better Place electric recharge grid operator model by 2011. Better Place and Renault-Nissan also announced a partnership that will enable electric vehicles to be mass produced for the Israeli market. The company has signed a letter of intent with DONG Energy aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from the Danish car fleet.

Before founding Better Place, Agassi was formerly president of the Products and Technology Group at SAP AG and a member of the SAP AG Executive Board (2002 - 2007). In these roles, Agassi was responsible for both the global development of the SAP product line and SAP's portfolio of industry-specific solutions.

Agassi is an active member of the Forum of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum where he focuses on climate change and transportation issues. He is also a member of the Copenhagen Climate Counsel and on the advisory board of the Corporate ECOForum. In addition, Agassi pens a blog titled The Long Tailpipe, where he discusses enterprise software and alternative energy innovations.