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Electric cars hoping for a spark

  • Story Highlights
  • Rising oil costs could precipitate more research into electric vehicles
  • Both local solutions and auto industry involvement in developing electric cars (EVs)
  • 'Project Better Place' teamed up with with Renault-Nissan to create EVs
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By Rachel Oliver
For CNN
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(CNN) -- Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes, and few have such an acute understanding of that phrase than the Palestinians -- particularly, it appears, when it comes to powering their cars.

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Renault's electric car, produded in partnership with Project Better Place, could be on the roads in Israel by 2011.

Faced with fuel shortages, two entrepreneurial Palestinians earlier in May managed to convert their car into an electric vehicle (EV) using 32 batteries at a cost of $2,500. They claim the car can run for up to 120 miles (193 kilometers) on one charge.

Israel, for its part, recently outlined its intention to be a world leader in that very field.

The Israeli government has reportedly teamed up with Silicon Valley-based Project Better Place -- which will supply batteries and necessary infrastructure -- and Renault-Nissan, which will supply the cars -- in an ambitious multi-million dollar collaboration.

The plan involves encouraging Israeli motorists to buy subsidized cars and lease the mileage on a monthly basis at a lower cost than buying gasoline. If successful, they want to export the project around the world, and hope to create an environmental brand on a scale with Nokia.

The project has the backing of Israeli President Shimon Peres, according to the Reuters news service, and the Israeli government has said it is going to offer strong tax incentives to anyone who purchases these cars.

The parties behind the project claim these tax breaks, which the government says it will offer until at least 2015, will make the EVs cheaper than regular gasoline-powered cars.

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Shai Agassi, Project Better Place's CEO, says that the "high-end" EVs from the project could end up costing "roughly half" of what the gasoline equivalent costs today, reports the International Herald Tribune.

This will come as welcome news to drivers currently sweating over rising oil prices, now surpassing $130 a barrel.

Many say time is of the essence to bring EVs to the mass consumer market, particularly if some oil analysts are correct in their predictions that within the next two years oil prices could reach a staggering $200 a barrel, as was predicted earlier this year by Goldman Sachs analyst Arjun Murti.

According to the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), around 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by a vehicle during its life cycle come from the gasoline it burns; while the Union of Concerned Scientists state that oil-fueled transportation is the single biggest air polluter in the United States.

Almost all cars on the country's roads -- 96 percent of them -- still run on gasoline, ACEEE says. Findings from the Electric Drive Transportation Association state that between them, they pump out nearly 50 percent of the world's auto-related greenhouse gas emissions; 50 percent of the urban air pollution in the U.S.; and nearly two-thirds of the country's carbon monoxide levels.

In China, tailpipe emissions now produce as much as 80 percent of the country's air pollution, according to the University of Michigan.

Driving early efforts

Despite some efforts in the 1990s to introduce EVs in the U.S., they have been slow to make any real impact on the mass market in what is still the world's biggest car market.

Toyota, one of the manufacturers behind the first wave of EVs in the U.S., with its RAV4 EV, says lack of customer demand was to blame for it discontinuing production back in 2003. It says it only managed to sell 300 cars a year despite what it called a significant marketing effort.

Others have blamed the powerful international oil lobby and U.S. government for effectively blocking any progress the EVs could have made.

One of them is the UK's former environment minister, Michael Meacher, who recently lambasted the American oil industry and the current administration for preventing the mass manufacturing of EVs in the U.S.

He referred to the move by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1996 to compel automakers to meet its mandate that 10 percent of cars had to be emissions-free by 2003.

Some automakers fought back and sued to get the mandate overturned -- with the federal government on their side.

An "obvious way to get out of the car impasse," Meacher recently wrote in The Guardian, was to encourage people to drive electric cars. But car makers needed to be "made to produce them," he said.

And the only people who could really do that are the world's governments.

Political will aside, there have also been very real concerns over the years about how the EVs are powered -- both in terms of the environmental impact of the lithium-ion batteries that power them, and what kind of energy is powering the electricity grid that these cars have to regularly plug into to charge up.

Toyota recently said, for example, that China was no place for EVs -- because of its overwhelming reliance on coal-fired power stations.

But others have pointed out that even if the grid is powered 100 percent by coal -- in terms of overall emissions it is still better than the current gasoline-based model.

Others have expressed concern that millions of people charging their cars from plug-in sockets would overpower the grid.

But studies have appeared to disprove this. One report from the National Resources Defense Council stated that if 60 percent of Americans' cars were electric, powered off the grid, it would only bring about increases in demand for electricity of between 7 percent and 8 percent.

The ultimate answer could be powering EVs with renewable energy, like solar or wind, and ideally, powering them at home.

Some EV owners in the U.S., for example who managed to keep hold of their cars once production was discontinued, have been able to recharge their cars with solar panels on the roofs of their houses, meaning, the costs of set-up aside, that they are essentially powering themselves virtually for free.

Critics still say though that while EVs may be cheap to maintain, that doesn't make them cheap to buy. In the U.S, for example, one of the few EVs available on the market right now is the Tesla Roadster, which costs a cool $100,000 to buy (and you may have to wait a year to get it too).

This has been enough to persuade some motorists with the time and the money to convert their existing cars into electric ones.

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In the U.S, this isn't cheap to do. Some have spent as much as much as $9,000 to convert their cars into EVs, a price too high for some.

For now, perhaps these motorists would be better advised to go to Gaza instead.

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