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TORONTO (Reuters) - A California company plans to build a network of stations to recharge or swap electric car batteries in Ontario, a move that could expand the market for electric cars in Canada's most populous province.
Closely held Better Place plans to build an electric recharging grid that will sell power to motorists under a subscription service, similar to the model that cellphone companies use to sell airtime.
Consumers would have the option of exchanging their depleted batteries at the company's stations or recharging them at homes, businesses or parking lots equipped with the company's "power spots."
It would take drivers less time to pull into an exchange station and swap a depleted battery for a fresh one than it would take to fill a tank with gasoline, the company said on Thursday.
Better Place would need about three years to build the network, and the company plans to open a demonstration center in Toronto in about a year to educate the public and let them test-drive electric vehicles.
Better Place has partnered with Renault and Nissan to develop electric car infrastructure.
"This is an exciting step toward building a network in Ontario," Better Place Chief Executive Shai Agassi said in an interview. "It's a road that we started with a lot of prodding from the (Ontario) government."
Ontario, home of a sprawling parts industry and several auto-assembly plants, has been hard hit by the crisis in the sector. Premier Dalton McGuinty said the province will issue a study in May that looks at ways to encourage adoption of electric vehicles, including financial incentives for consumers and government purchasing policy.
Agassi said the project, which he called "the project of our generation," was an easy sell, despite the tough economic conditions.
"If you have a template for a massive infrastructure project that can save governments future energy bills, is conducive to the creation of local jobs, reduces their carbon emissions and introduces new jobs for industries like cars, you are in high demand," he said.
Governments around the world have been earmarking spending toward infrastructure projects to create work and lessen the impact of the global recession.
The economic downturn has also put a huge dent in the price of oil. U.S. crude oil has fallen to around $35 a barrel from its high of over $147 a barrel in July. Agassi said he is confident that when the economy picks up, oil prices will rebound sharply and consumers will more easily see the cost benefits of driving an electric vehicle.
At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week, Ford Motor Co and Magna International announced a partnership to build an electric car that is expected to be market ready by around 2011.
Most auto manufacturers had at least one electric vehicle at the Detroit show. The auto industry has seen demand plummet due to the weak economy and the Detroit automakers -- Ford, General Motors Corp and Chrysler -- have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
A collapse of the troubled Detroit Three would put nearly 600,000 Canadians out of work within five years, most of them in Ontario, according to a recent report by a provincial advisory panel.
Canada said in late December that it would provide C$4 billion ($3.2 billion) in emergency loans to the Canadian branches of the Detroit Three to keep them operating while they restructured. The funding pledge followed a $17.4 billion U.S. package for the Detroit auto industry.
Toronto-based Bullfrog Power, a green electricity retailer in Ontario and Alberta, will power the network while Macquarie Group will act as financial adviser to develop a rollout plan.
Better Place, launched in 2007 with $200 million of venture funding, is planning similar networks in Israel, Denmark, Australia, California and Hawaii, with activations starting in 2010.
Additional reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Frank McGurty