Electric car venture unveils charge stations in Israel

TEL AVIV, Dec 8 (Reuters) - California-based electric car operator Better Place unveiled in Israel on Monday its first charging stations as part of a network it hopes will replace gasoline-powered engines worldwide.

The $200-million venture-backed company is still in an early stage, testing charge spots in Israel with plans to follow in Denmark, and is working with Renault RENA.PA and Nissan 7201.T to develop electric car infrastructure.

Better Place has also announced partnerships with Australia, California and Hawaii, worth about $2 billion in total, to expand its network in the coming years as markets search for alternatives to cut carbon emissions and pricey fuel imports.

“This is a proof of concept,” said Moshe Kaplinsky, chief executive of Better Place Israel, of the 17 charge spots unveiled in the parking lot of a Tel Aviv suburb.

The metre-high, slickly-designed posts, each able to charge two cars, mark the half-way point of a six-month pilot project that will total about 400 stations throughout greater Tel Aviv.

About 10,000 charge spots will be installed in 2009 across Israel, and that will increase to 100,000 by 2010. Electric cars will not be sold en masse in Israel until 2011, Kaplinsky said.

The company’s concept combines electric car charge spots at designated parking lots in residential areas and workplaces with battery swap stations to allow longer drives.

Consumers have yet to embrace electric cars, partly due to the limitations in battery technologies.

Some automakers, like Toyota, are betting they will prefer buying hybrids, rather than compromising vehicle size and driving range with electric cars.

Though ailing General Motors Corp GM.N, seeking alternatives to traditional internal combustion-powered vehicles, is committed to designing the Chevy Volt, a rechargeable car with a range of 64 km (40 miles).

Kaplinsky would not give details on how much drivers will have to pay to hook into its network, but said it would be cheaper than today’s fuel costs.

The price for a barrel of oil, which surged earlier this year to more than $100, is now about $43. The auto industry has been hammered worldwide, hurt by a plunge in consumer confidence and a desire to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The electric car batteries used in Israel will have a range of 160-200 km (100-125 miles) and on average need between 3-4 hours to charge, Kaplinsky said. Swap stations -- where empty batteries are replaced with fully charged ones -- will be unveiled in coming months.

Better Place’s grid has a central control that doles out energy based on an algorithm to prevent overloading.

Project Better Place, which is headed by former SAP SAPG.DE executive Shai Agassi, will launch a similar pilot project in Denmark in about six months. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Macdonald)