Electric parade

There were two parades taking place on Friday in Tel Aviv. Just a few kilometers from the better exposed of the two, the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade, a smaller group was standing up for its right to make the world a better place in its own way.

Several hundred owners of 100% electric cars from the now-bankrupt, former high-flying hi-tech company Better Place were demonstrating their commitment to a vision of a future free from gas-powered vehicles. The event was both a chance for Better Place owners to draw strength for the fight to come and to send a message to the Knesset and the company’s liquidators who will be meeting later this week that electric powered transportation in Israel is far from dead.

The event was not sponsored by Better Place but by the newly formed Association for Electric Transportation Advancement. Word went out by Facebook and at 2:00 PM, some 150 all-electric Renault Fluence Z.E.’s had gathered at the (closed) Better Place showroom in Herzilya.

My wife and I were there, too – we bought our electric car last September, just days before founder Shai Agassi was ousted and the whole operation became a desperate cat and mouse game of buyers vs. burn rate. I’ve written about it extensively – here’s a link and another. (To clarify: I’m not Brian of London; he’s another Times of Israel blogger who owns a Better Place car and frequently blogs on the benefits of sustainable energy.)

When Agassi was booted out, we considered canceling our order, but we really believed in the company’s promise. And as every Better Place owner will tell you, there is nothing quite like the smooth, powerful ride of an all-electric car. Was our decision a mistake in hindsight? The next few days will tell. After the Friday gathering, we were cautiously optimistic.

View of the parade from inside our car
View of the parade from inside our car

Friday’s electric parade took off from Herzilya as a convoy of cars headed one after the other to the southeastern end of Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park. Once there, we were updated on the goals of the newly formed Association and received encouragement from American-Israeli solar power entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, who is heading one of several groups bidding to buy the assets of Better Place.

Abramowitz, whose Arava Power Company is responsible for the first grid-connected solar field in Israel and who also runs Energiya Global Capital, which is aims to establish solar fields in developing nations around the world, is working together with the Association to create an owner’s “cooperative” which would keep Better Place’s network of swapping stations and charge spots operating.

Abramowitz, who donned his YouTube “Captain Sunshine” superhero garb for some of his talk, emphasized that Better Place car owners should be given first priority, above the many other creditors, in whatever outcome lies ahead. “You are the risk takers, the pioneers,” he told the crowd.

That’s not just idle talk: the thousand or so vehicles currently in Israel, at a price of $30,000 each, represent a $30 million investment in the company by ordinary Israelis like us.

Better Place has a number of suitors; not all share the same vision. The Israel Electric Corporation, for example, would reportedly love to get the company at a fire sale price for its network of thousands of charge spots and Better Place’s smart network which understands how to distribute power so that if all 1,000 (and, in the future, more) electric cars plug in at once, the national power grid won’t be overwhelmed and crash. The swapping stations, however, are of less interest to the IEC.

Abramowitz and his consortium want the whole system to keep running, swap stations and all, but on a smaller scale, bringing it back to a more modest “start-up” level. Analysts say that it was the company’s grandiose global over-reaching that may have been the ultimate short circuit in Better Place’s lightning ambitions.

Why a membership-based cooperative can do a better job than the Better Place that crashed and burned is not clear to me but there is a surplus of positive energy and much pro bono work currently circulating. Abramowitz says he has commitments from some big players and a $50 million check (not his own) in his pocket to get started.

But he also has some serious demands from the government, including financial assistance, preferential treatment for electric car owners and the ability to connect the Better Place network up to his solar power farm, something for which neither Better Place nor the government has been particularly forthcoming in the past.

I wish him – and all of us Better Place owners – luck. The alternatives are bleak: at best, the continuation of a rechargeable car network without swapping stations good for local runs of 120 KM and under (not what we signed up for – we bought our Better Place car as our primary long distance vehicle); at worst, a $30,000 paperweight with 4 years left to pay on an interest linked loan.

The common denominator at Friday’s rally – “we want to keep our cars,” as Efi Shahak, chairman of the Association repeated categorically – is one that Renault, manufacturer of the only Better Place model in Israel, apparently found surprising. As Shahak told the crowd, Renault expected car owners to demand compensation for the failed project, not to find a solution where they could continue driving.

Ultimately, both Shahak and Abramowitz said, this is not just a personal issue. Rather it’s one of national pride. Israel should be leading the way towards independence from oil. To let Better Place fail sends a terrible message to the world electric vehicle community and makes it that much harder for the next electric venture in Israel to succeed. Keeping Better Place alive – under a new name, Abramowitz said (he’s already solicited suggestions on Facebook) – is nothing short of a Zionist imperative and Abramowitz was not shy of invoking Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream” speech.

The Knesset and the liquidators are set to decide Better Place’s fate by Thursday. By then we’ll know whether this alternative Tel Aviv parade was able to light a charge under the decision maker’s chairs or whether, like Disneyland in 1996, the Main Street Electrical Parade will be retired for good.

About the Author
Brian Blum is a freelance writer, journalist and editor. He works for an eclectic mix of newspapers, online magazines, universities, non-profit organizations, public companies and blogs. "This Normal Life," his personal blog, has appeared weekly for 11 years now. A former hi-tech entrepreneur, Brian moved to Jerusalem from the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994 with his wife and three children.