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Fallout From Failure of Battery Swap Plan
When Better Place, the global electric-car charging company with a home base in Israel, announced last month that it had reached the end of the road, it left behind both bold dreams and valuable assets.

The company, which took in about $850 million from investors, was best known for its network of battery swapping stations that let E.V. drivers avoid long recharge times by simply changing to a fully charged battery in an automated process that took only minutes. At its peak under Shai Agassi, its charismatic founder, the company had operations in Israel, Denmark, Australia, China, the United States and the Netherlands; in February it cut back to the first two.

Susanne Tolstrup, a former spokeswoman for Better Place, said in an e-mail that the company had 1,000 customers in Israel, with 37 swap stations and more than 1,000 “charge spots.” In Denmark, she said, the company had about 500 customers, 18 swap stations and 700 chargers. The Renault Fluence Z.E. electric car, a model designed to use switchable batteries, is offered in both countries.

American operations had already begun winding down.

In Northern California, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2010 announced nearly $7 million in awards to build Better Place taxi fleets with swappable batteries in San Francisco and San Jose.

“Here in the Bay Area, we’ve been supportive of a lot of different initiatives on climate change,” Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the agency, said in a telephone interview. “We knew we were taking some chances, and this is an example on the electric vehicle side that wasn’t quite ready.”

Better Place’s operation in Hawaii — nearly 700 customers and about 80 charge spots — were acquired in March by a local company, OpConnect. Dexter Turner, chief executive of OpConnect, said in an e-mail that the network “is up and running with no interruptions in service for Hawaii E.V. drivers.”

In Israel and Denmark, the picture is much more complicated, and the stakes are bigger.

Renault said in a conference call that it would continue to provide service for the Fluence Z.E. in Israel. The future of the swap stations is cloudy, but Israeli news reports said that a court-appointed provisional liquidator planned to leave some workers in place — though major layoffs are planned — to run the network temporarily.

The liquidators face vexing challenges. Each switching station cost about $500,000 to build and has questionable value considering the small number of Renault cars with swappable batteries. From the point of view of stranded Better Place customers in the two countries, the best option would be new operators for the intact switching networks.
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