Not really so much better

Not really so much better

Electric car company Better Place fails in Israel, leaves cars and doubts behind

On May 10, the Jewish Standard featured a story about Dr. David Kleid, who made aliyah to Israel from his home in Fair Lawn.

Kleid recently had leased an all-electric Renault Fluence through Better Place, the American-Israeli company that was using Israel as a testing ground for its electric car network. He reported that he loved the way it handles the hills between his home in Ma’aleh Adumim and his job in Jerusalem, with no gasoline.

Just 16 days later, after six years and more than $850 million in venture capital spent, Better Place declared bankruptcy. The company was turned over to a liquidator, and the future of its 38 battery-switching stations in Israel is uncertain.

Worst of all, for people like Kleid, who have vehicles and charging points in their driveways, is that nobody really knows what will happen next.

“Nobody’s told me anything,” Kleid said. “I’ve gotten no notifications at all.

“I did get a letter from the electric company that I have to start paying the bill [for the charging point] directly instead of through my agreement with Better Place, and I’m trying to figure out how that will work.”

He is wary of being double-charged but hopes that he could be reimbursed if Better Place experiences a renaissance. “I’m just glad I didn’t take the deal to pay for the electricity up front,” he said.

Sharon Zimmerman of Oranit, an old friend of Kleid’s who originally came from Manhattan, did pay in advance for four years’ worth of electricity, on top of NIS 170,000 (almost $47,000) for the car.

“It’s too much money to even think about,” she said. “We thought we were saving money because electricity is half the price of gas.”

Zimmerman and her husband, Eric, are among a few hundred electric Renault Fluence owners who connected through the Better Place Israeli customer page on Facebook to form the Association for Electric Transportation Advancement.

Members of this ad-hoc coalition (who include Saul Singer, co-author of “Start-Up Nation”) sent letters to Renault and demonstrated in Tel Aviv last Friday to send a message to the Knesset and to the company’s liquidators that as far as they are concerned, electric-powered transportation in Israel could still have a bright future.

“We’re not looking at our own huge personal losses, but at the fact that we don’t want the system to fail and not be able to drive our cars,” Zimmerman said. “We met the night after the [bankruptcy] announcement was made, and now we’re incredibly active with Knesset members, trying to put together a cooperative of owners with investors to come up with a scheme to cover the cost of running the charging stations.”

Solar energy pioneer Yosef Abramowitz (a.k.a. Kaptain Sunshine), an immigrant from the Boston area, is lending his weight to the group’s efforts.

“We’re not asking the government for financial support, but for support of the whole green revolution,” Zimmerman stressed. “If the government gives backbone to the venture, I think within three or five years 20 percent of Israeli government cars would be electric. Perhaps they could waive taxes or offer other sorts of incentives to let investors know they are standing behind it.”

Meanwhile, Eric Zimmerman can drive his car to and from work on a single charge at home. “Worst-case scenario is that Renault could take the battery from us because it belongs to them, so we could be left with a chunk of metal,” he said.

“We’re not interested in suing Better Place, but in finding a solution to keep it going because we love it so much. It’s an ideal solution for the country and it would be a national catastrophe to end it after millions have been put into the infrastructure.”

Better Place released a statement that said, in part: “We stand by the original vision as formulated by Shai Agassi of creating a green alternative that would lessen our dependence on highly polluting transportation technologies. The technical challenges we overcame successfully, but the other obstacles we were not able to overcome, despite the massive effort and resources that were deployed to that end.”

The liquidator pledged that the level of service would stay the same until June 13, but drivers put in a request to extend this deadline to early July.

Kleid contacted a lawyer recommended by the Association for Electric Transportation Advancement. In return, he received a form letter telling him basically that everything is up in the air.

“As far as leasing, they are still taking the money and I’m still using the car,” Kleid said. “I figure when the bad news comes, it comes – or a solution will be found. I can’t decide anything at this point.”

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