Galilee Diary: Sustainability II

God placed in [the heavens] a tent for the sun, who is like a groom coming forth from his chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course. His rising-place is at one end of the heaven, and his circuit reaches the other; nothing escapes his heat.
-Psalms 19:5-7

Driving around the country these days, once encounters here and there workers installing charging stands or battery replacement stations for “Better Place,” the electric car project whose primary demonstration site is Israel. Better Place has its headquarters, symbolically, in a converted tank in the decommissioned fuel tank farm at the northern entrance to Tel Aviv. There one can watch a very enthusiastic film explaining why electric cars are the future of transportation – while the CEO, Shai Agassi, preaches his truth from additional screens around the room: electric cars will make the world a “better place.” Then, you can tour the facility, receiving more detailed explanations of how the system works, take a test drive, and, if you are ready, meet with a sales representative to make an order. The pitch is an interesting mixture of messianism and capitalism; as the film comes to its inspirational end, you feel guilty for not running right to the nearest sales rep. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about perpetual motion machines…

To the doubters who point out to the tour guide that all of Israel’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, the answer is that a) even so, electric cars use that energy more efficiently and allow the pollution to be concentrated and controlled; and b) as Israel converts to renewable energy, these cars will be ready to use it. To those who express concern about the 100 mile range of a battery charge, the answer is that the unique advantage of the Better Place system is a network of battery swapping stations around the country, allowing one to drive in and exchange a spent battery for a charged one in just a few minutes (using a robotic lift – the battery weighs several hundred pounds). Thus, you can plug into a charging stand whenever you are parked, and if you have no time to recharge, you drive into a battery-swapping station and just switch batteries. You buy a package of miles, and can recharge and swap batteries without limit within that total. The cost per mile ends up about 15% less than for a gasoline-powered vehicle. Of course all cars, stations, and charging stands are connected to a central computer network that controls and records power needs etc.

Mr. Agassi is a charismatic high-tech wunderkind who has raised $750 million in investment, and used up about half of it so far. There are a few hundred cars on the road today, and just in the past few months has it been possible to see charging stands being installed in public places, and swapping stations under construction. There is one model available – a sleek Renault sedan, which costs about the same as its internal combustion equivalent. There are, of course, other companies investing huge sums in alternative solutions – if someone invents a better battery in the next few years, Better Place could be in trouble with its major investment in swapping stations.

It is an impressive effort in any case, and it will be interesting to see what happens. Meanwhile, from a curmudgeonly point of view, the question arises of whether it is a good idea to envision a future based on more efficient private cars, in a small crowded country which is choked with cars already, where urban sidewalks – and sometimes rural highways – have become parking lots, where day by day we watch the green space recede as it is paved over with asphalt. Is it a given that what is good for the investors is good for the world? Are we really heading for a better place?

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

3 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Sustainability II”

  1. avatar

    I first experienced electric vehicle (EV) technology in the early 1990’s as part of a US/Canadian effort to test EV’s in the chilly climate of the northeastern US. I drove an EV for several years as my primary vehicle. At that time, neither the technology nor the public, primarily the latter, were ready for broad adoption of EV’s.

    As much as I agree that more mass transit is a better answer than more personal vehicles, it is a far bigger challenge to change the driving public’s behaviors from personal to shared, and from anytime at all to scheduled travel.

    EV’s offer an easy transition to a more efficient modality. A primary focus of Toyota’s original Prius design team was to make it as “car-like” as possible, right down to the built-in creep that every driver experiences with an automatic transmission when stopped at a traffic light. All that really does is reduce the efficiency of the vehicle, but the psychological factor was deemed too important to trade off.

    Accepting, for the moment, Israel’s dependence on the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, moving the fire from under the hood to a cleaner and more efficient electric power plant has both economic and environmental advantages. Moreover, in a world of electric transportation, the mix of primary energy sources is totally independent of how the vehicle is moved. Electrons from an oil-fired plant are the same as those from a solar farm. Thus, if cold fusion power plants are built next year, no infrastructure changes or vehicle redesign would be needed to accommodate the new energy source.

  2. avatar

    Israel should be way out front in all modes of green. It is looking at 2 -4 deg C increase in the next few decades. A world mAp of “vulnerable” areas” does not indicate an exemption for Israel.

  3. avatar

    Curmudgeonly indeed. Rabbi Rosenstein appears to be a good example of the the difficulty in changing the driving public’s behaviors. While the Galilee may be in the process of being paved over, the Negev still appears (to my eye) to be mainly sand.

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