Denmark’s electric avenues

Chicken, meet egg. The classic problem with alternative vehicles—if I drive a car fueled on French fries, where do I feed it?—is beginning to resolve itself, in the form of companies like Project Better Place, which peddles infrastructure in the form of battery-recharging stations for electric cars. In January, the company announced that it would begin installing an electric recharging grid across Israel. Now Denmark is hopping on the electric bandwagon with a similar agreement.

The Danish electric car-charging network will involve thousands of charging stations built in parking lots and near homes by 2011 (the International Herald Tribune says 20,000 stations, while the Register says 500,000). In Israel, the company plans to build 500,000 stations for drivers to recharge their vehicles or swap batteries. Both countries make logical broad-scale test beds for EVs: short drives don’t push the limits of the vehicles’ batteries, and both Denmark and Israel are too small to provide anything but short distances. Most of Israel’s drivers cover about 70 kilometers a day, for example, and all its major cities are less than 150 km apart, a company press release says.

Project Better Place is partnering with Renault for the electric vehicles, Nissan Motor for its lithium-ion battery pack, and the Israeli and Danish governments, which are offering tax credits on zero-emissions vehicles.

Denmark has made unique progress in embracing alternative energy, and the EV initiative will piggyback on the Scandinavians’ established lead in wind-energy production. The country plans to use its wind-generated electricity to charge the vehicles, which will mostly be plugged in at night, when wind turbines perform their best.

Those windmills are key to Denmark’s reinvention, over the last decade, as one of the most energy-forward countries in the world. For example, Samso, a Danish island twice the size of Manhattan, is both carbon-neutral and completely energy-independent, earning it its title as an eco-wonderland. Wind is responsible for the island’s electricity, while furnaces still burn wood and some cars are still fueled by petroleum. But the island has enough offshore wind-generation capacity to ship electricity back to the mainland to more than compensate for the handful of dirty emitters that remain. At first, Samso seemed like an oddity, a one-off futurist dream made real. But maybe we should be looking at Denmark itself for proof that anything is possible.