Electric cars – what about pedal power?

The most exciting solution to the energy crisis and climate change problems is based on improving energy efficiency – an area where Israel, with its know-how and ability to adapt, excels. Two million electric cars flooding the streets and highways …

The most exciting solution to the energy crisis and climate change problems is based on improving energy efficiency – an area where Israel, with its know-how and ability to adapt, excels.

Two million electric cars flooding the streets and highways of Israel using not even a single drop of gasoline? This prospect of an oil-free and seemingly green future has recently excited many journalists and Israeli politicians. First raised by a young Israeli high-tech entrepreneur, Shai Agassi, the concept was immediately embraced by the Israeli Government and President Shimon Peres. However, as the smoke surrounding the idea clears, it becomes apparent that Israel’s great potential as an innovator for a greener future should follow a more sustainable path.

Oil is a scarce resource which is only becoming costlier. As it is mostly imported from hostile countries, Israel must find ways and alternatives to free itself from oil dependence. Also, Israel is known to be a world leader in solar energy research and advanced new technology development and, as such, could set an example to other nations, as well as using this advantage to push forward its economy.

The goal itself is quite ambitious. In less than a decade, Agassi plans to have Israel’s entire car fleet go electric. To achieve this goal, he first needs to develop the technology and establish the required infrastructure in Israel, including some heavy industries in order to manufacture thousands of such cars annually. He will then need to install a large number of fueling stations around the country where, in only a matter of minutes, drivers will be able to seamlessly replace their uncharged car batteries with newly charged ones, through means of an automated process.

Besides feasibility issues, the project raises quite a few questions, first of which is whether it indeed promotes sustainability. Israel is one of the most densely populated countries in the developed world, with 326 people per sq. kilometer (845 people per sq. mile). Most live in the central and northern areas, where the density is around 600 people per sq. km (over 1,600 people per sq. mile) – one of the highest population densities in the world. It is a small country with scarce land reserves and open spaces.

With already heavily congested roads, any sustainable solution to Israel’s transportation problems cannot be based primarily on private cars, regardless of the question of the amount of pollution these cars are emitting. Car-based transportation requires the building of more highways and roads, new bridges and intersections that would take up land; it also creates the conditions for urban sprawl, which would take up even more land. This is a non-sustainable solution for Israel.

Switching to electric-based transport will indeed reduce most of the urban air pollution, which is of course very important, but electricity production remains a polluting process, so essentially the problem is being transferred to a different location. Electricity production in Israel is mostly from coal (more than 70 percent), nearly all from old technology and highly polluting power plants. A cleaner solution for electricity production is urgently needed, and maybe this should be resolved first, before converting all the cars into electric ones.

A solution to depleting oil and the transportation sector should be based on a different approach. Looking for solutions and alternative fuels for our cars is only a partial and a very limited approach to the solution.

The essence of transportation is moving people from place to place. Our current, private vehicle-based transport system is wasteful and non-sustainable. Already, cities around the country are beginning to explore more innovative approaches based on public transportation and the encouragement of cycling and pedestrians: Haifa is building a transit network combining a rapid bus network, the Carmelit underground and a cable car up the Carmel Mountain; Tel Aviv plans to have 100km of bicycle lanes by its centenary, in 2009.

At the same time, the most exciting potential for solving both the energy crisis and climate change problems are based on improving energy efficiency.

Aside from Israeli know-how, the country’s ability to quickly network and adapt to changes makes it a potential leader in the field. Just last week, at a conference in Eilat, the city mayor presented a target of an annual 10% reduction in energy use. Eilat’s hotel managers gathered to hear experts, planners and companies presenting very practical, innovative Israeli technologies and applications that can provide the desired energy efficiency.

Also recently, in Tel Aviv, 18 of the country’s leading cities signed a pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 and entered a process to implement their commitment. These are the kind of steps that need to be taken to turn Israel into a true energy leader.

We must think out of the box, improve our public transport systems and the ways our cities are built, encourage cycling and walking – strengthening our communities through the process and creating a better and healthier environment. Innovation does not necessarily mean science and technology, it means finding better solutions to our daily problems.