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Denmark signs up for wind powered electric car switch

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Denmark has become the second country to sign up to Shai Agassi's ambitious plan to wean the world off petrol-driven transportation, with the announcement of a deal between Agassi's Project Better Place and Danish utility Dong Energy. As with the Israeli deal announced in January, the latest venture will involve mass production of electric vehicles and the rollout of an extensive recharging and battery swap infrastructure.

Speaking to The Register this afternoon, Agassi said that the Israeli and Danish projects were broadly similar in size and timescale. Both will see the first vehicles on the road next year, with production ramping up into thousands in 2010, by which time the fuelling infrastructure will be starting to emerge.

Also like Israel, the Danish government will be offering tax breaks on the vehicles. According to Agassi, the average price of a car in Denmark is $60,000 (about €38,000), while the tax break could price an electric car as low as $20,000 there. So the Project Better Place formula for success so far seems to be to get the attention of a power company to provide the network, and secure the tax breaks that will make electric vehicles a compelling proposition compared to petrol. This may not play so well in countries that don't already tax motor vehicles heavily, and/or that have a substantial auto manufacturing industry.

The Denmark infrastructure will consist of approximately 500,000 charging spots and 150 battery swap stations, allowing vehicles to be charged overnight, and the swap stations to be used as a gas station equivalent for longer journeys. Agassi sees it as vital that using an electric vehicle is at least as convenient as using a petrol driven one, so the battery swap should take no longer than it would to fill a tank of petrol - but he claims 20 seconds is do-able.

Drivers won't own the batteries, and will pay based on miles driven rather directly for electricity used, so the age of the battery installed shouldn't be a major issue so long as it's good for the specified mileage, nor will drivers lose money by trading in batteries before they're fully run down.

Aside from powering cars, the Danish infrastructure is also intended to act as storage capacity for the country's wind power generation capability. On average around 20 per cent of Denmark's electricity comes from wind, but this can be substantially higher or lower, depending on conditions, meaning there's a need to sell off surplus power to neighbouring countries, and to maintain a substantial standby capacity to fill the gap when the wind is low. Two million electric cars in circulation, however, would give provide a standby capacity around five times the size of Denmark's needs, says Agassi. This he says is being designed into the infrastructure from the start, with smart charging systems charging batteries when the power's plentiful, and even feeding power back into the grid when necessary.

Where next? Agassi says he's in discussions with 30 countries, but declines to get any more specific, and won't comment on California's inglorious electric car record (Project Better Place is Palo Alto-based), apart from saying targets don't mean a thing if you don't have the science in place. California pioneered wishing for an electric vehicle revolution, but has subsequently postponed and downgraded its targets for them. Agassi has previously suggested France might be a good market, and Japan has also been rumoured. Considering that the cars are being made by Renault and Nissan, neither of these would be surprising, but as both also have substantial auto industries, they could be a tougher sell. ®

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