Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

View more articles from Michael Bleby

Car charger Better Place to close Australian operation

Published 08 February 2013 11:15, Updated 08 February 2013 12:19

+font -font print
Car charger Better Place to close Australian operation

Former Better Place CEO Evan Thornley explains the company’s car charging to ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher Photo: Elesa Lee

Troubled electric vehicle charging technology company Better Place will close in Australia after its parent company halted funding, leaving local car-maker partners looking for alternatives and throwing a veil of uncertainty over at least one development project.

After the decision this week by the Tel Aviv-based board to stop funding its Australian and US operations as the company concentrates on more advanced markets in Denmark and Israel, the Australian company anticipates it “will begin working towards an orderly wind-down of our operations here”, spokeswoman Felicity Glennie-Holmes says.

“Our priority will be to manage this process appropriately and fulfil our obligations to all our stakeholders, including plug-in drivers who are using the Better Place network of charge spots,” she says.

The company is participating in electric vehicle trials in Victoria and Newcastle and is Holden’s approved partner to supply green electricity for customers of its new Volt passenger car. It also operates a network of 150 charge points across Australia, concentrated in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Better Place Australia last year cut 20 per cent of its staff – a reported 10 people – as it sought to reduce cash burn.

The closure decision comes a month after former Australian head and then global chief executive of Better Place, Evan Thornley, stepped down from the top job, citing strategic differences about the future direction of the company. Thornley had only taken the role in October after the board sacked founder Shai Agassi.

Closure of the Australian business – which employs between 30 and 40 people at its office in Richmond, Victoria – leaves car maker Holden looking for an alternative partner to supply owners of the Volt, on sale since November, with electricity generated by sustainable means, such as wind.

“We are looking at what other partnerships can be formed,” Holden spokeswoman Andrea Matthews says. “We’ve got ongoing talks with a number of players in the industry.”

Better Place also partners Air International, Bosch, Continental, Futuris and GE in the EV Engineering consortium, which last year produced seven proof-of-concept electric Holden Commodores. Consortium chief executive Ian McCleave says Better Place was a “significant contributor” to the project, but won’t quantify the funding.

McCleave can’t say how Better Place’s departure will affect the consortium’s future projects.

“It’s a little too early to say what the solution, what the longer-term plan is,” he says. “We have met and discussed the situation. We’re now seeking alternative sources of funding to see what is possible.”

Better Place’s demise may make some people think the electric vehicle industry is in trouble, but this is not the case, says James Brown, chief executive of ChargePoint Australia, a rival network operator.

“Some people may get the wrong impression about where the industry is headed, but the car manufacturers are very much behind the electric vehicle and they have invested far more money in it than Better Place have,” Brown says.

Holden’s Matthews agrees. “It’s a long game,” she says. “We’re certainly very committed to making sure the introduction of electric cars is a success. Electric cars are part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions.”

The company’s exit from the local scene gives an opening to rival network operators, such as ChargePoint and ECOtality, to take over its operations.

“I’d like to think that we’re available and very willing to support the entire industry,” Brown says.

Comments