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Electric battle stations

In a Better Place: Former Victorian MP Evan Thornley.

Electric car recharge network fight flares in Australia and US

28 Jan 2009

WHILE controversy rages over the appointment of its new Australian chief executive, US-based company Better Place also has a new rival in its home market trying to capitalise on the future need for electric car recharging stations.

Coulomb Technologies of Campbell, California, has announced it has secured the relatively modest sum of $US3.75 million from German private investment company Estag Capital to help with the rollout of what it calls “the most advanced networked vehicle charging infrastructure for plug-in vehicles”.

But Better Place, which was the first company to enter the vehicle recharging arena with backing of hundreds of millions of dollars, already has deals in place for networks in Israel, California, Hawaii, Ontario, Japan and Monaco as well as Australia.

80 center image Left: Coulomb Technologies' ChargePoint station.

Only this week, Better Place announced funding of 103 million euro to develop plug-in car infrastructure in Denmark – about one-quarter the $1 billion it has earmarked for Australia’s east coast.

However, the company’s appointment of former Victorian MP Evan Thornley as its Australian chief executive – just months after clinching a deal with the Victorian government – has caused a political storm here and embarrassed premier John Brumby.

Mr Thornley was a high-profile Labour recruit who served as the premier’s right-hand man, but stunned the establishment when he resigned late last month, the day before he was to be given a ministerial post.

It was only last week that he revealed he had accepted the CEO role with Better Place, saying he had been won over by the company’s potential – not the rumoured $700,000 a year salary.

Although Mr Thornley claims to have had nothing to do with last year’s Better Place negotiations, he admits he had been courted for months by the private sector – behaviour that the furious state opposition says is an outrageous breach of trust and integrity.

Opposition spokesman David Davis told The Age newspaper that Mr Thornley’s actions were “a scandal and an absolute outrage”, saying they would have breached the proposed parliamentary code of conduct.

“This is clearly a breach of trust, clearly a breach of integrity, it breaches all of the principles of good governance and integrity in government and the premier has allowed this to occur,” said Mr Davis.

Better place founder Shai Agassi described Mr Thornley as a successful technology entrepreneur who would oversee the development of the company’s electric vehicle network in Australia.

“Evan’s deep technology expertise, capital raising experience and previous entrepreneurial success will be critical as we roll out the supporting infrastructure and make sustainable transportation a reality for one of the world’s largest nations,” said Mr Agassi.

After working with management consultants McKinsey & Company in Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur and New York, Mr Thornley founded internet search advertising company Looksmart, which was one of only a handful of Australia companies to be successfully taken public on the high-tech NASDAQ Exchange in the US.

After retiring from Looksmart in 2002, Thornley returned to Australia and was elected to the Legislative Council in the Victorian Parliament, where he served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier.

“I’m delighted to be joining Better Place Australia to continue the company’s mission of ending oil dependence,” said Mr Thornley in a statement.

“This is a significant global undertaking that will fundamentally change the lives of Australians and produce large scale environmental and economic benefits.

“This is a significant national project that will demonstrate the goals of environmental gain and economic benefit are not in conflict, as well as deliver a reliable and affordable electric vehicle to motorists.” Better Place did not expect to have the global market to itself, but hopes there will at least be a standard globally for recharging connections between countries and car brands, one of which – Renault-Nissan – it enjoys a commercial affiliation.

Interestingly, the new player in the market, Coulomb, mentions Nissan when talking about the growing number of plug-in electric vehicles coming on to the market.

“Major automakers including General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Mercedes, Volvo, BMW and Nissan are developing a new generation of energy efficient cars,” said Coulomb CEO Richard Lowenthal.

“All of these cars have one thing in common: They need connection to the existing electric grid to recharge on-board batteries. Alternative fueling stations will be in California in the coming months and Coulomb is providing a scalable solution that meets the needs to diminish our dependence on foreign oil.

“2009 is the year of the emergence of smart electric vehicle charging infrastructure.” Coulomb says it will roll-out thousands of its ‘ChargePoint’ charge stations, saying it already has plans to install them in public and private parking stations in almost half of America’s 50 states.

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