Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says he’s committed to making the province a model for the introduction of electric cars in Canada, and he’s enlisted the help of a California startup that has already convinced Israel, Denmark and Australia to take the same ambitious journey.

The government announced this morning a partnership with Better Place, a high-tech company based in Palo Alto, Calif., that wants to build a network of battery recharge and “swap” stations around the GTA to support the introduction of electric vehicles, or what many in the industry are calling “Car 2.0.”

Better Place’s vision is to set up regional Electric Recharge Grid Operators that would sell energy to electric-car drivers as part of a monthly subscription — like a cellphone service plan that sells electricity instead of minutes.

The Toronto Star was first to report in September that Sandra Pupatello, then minister of economic development and trade, had held meetings with Better Place to discuss ways of turning the Toronto region into an electric transportation hub.

Today’s announcement, while no investments have been made, is the first step in what McGuinty described as a symbolic commitment to the concept.

“We’re just beginning this,” he said during a press conference, adding that the government’s partnership with Better Place sends an important signal to the market.

“One of the most important things we can do is demonstrate we are truly an electric-car friendly jurisdiction.”

Better Place said it will set up its Canadian head office in Ontario and, as part of the partnership, will establish an electric vehicle demonstration and education centre in Toronto.

Over the new few months it will develop a charging-network plan, which will include an estimated timeline for building a network and the likely cost.

At the same time, the government will do its own comprehensive study, to be released in May, that will look at ways to accelerate the manufacture and deployment of electric vehicles in Ontario.

“Our commitment is to complete a study to better understand the kinds of policies we need to drive this forward,” said McGuinty.

Better Place also announced that it has partnered with Toronto-based green electricity retailer Bullfrog Power, though the extent of their relationship as the initiative moves forward wasn’t clear.

Shai Agassi, founder and chief executive of Better Place, said there will need to be a lot of “preparation work” and consumer education but the goal is to create the policies, public demand and incentives that will entice existing automakers in Ontario to feed the market.

“The opportunity for automakers to see demand in a location, where they can effectively just retool the factory and not start from scratch is extremely appealing for them right now,” said Agassi, 38, a former software executive.

He emphasized the importance of getting the public to see, learn about and test drive electric cars as a way of building support for a future transportation infrastructure aimed at weaning society off gasoline.

Young people are a key target, he added.

“What you’ll see are a thousand high school students coming in and driving an electric car,” said Agassi, assuring that “their first car is not going to go on gasoline.”

Better Place says the Greater Toronto Area is an appealing market because of its population density of roughly five million people. Documents presented by the company last summer showed that it would likely require an investment of more than $150 million to set up a local grid operator and the infrastructure to support 100,000 electric-car subscribers within 80 to 160 kilometres of downtown Toronto.

French automaker Renault S.A., in alliance with Nissan, has agreed to manufacture electric cars for Better Place for projects in Israel and Denmark.

Agassi said any electric car could “roam” onto Better Place’s charging network but more cooperation with manufacturers would be required to make sure manufacturers made electric cars with “swappable” batteries.

 

MOTI MILROD/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Better Place founder Shai Agassi demonstrate a charge spot for an electric vehicle near Tel Aviv, in Israel, Dec. 8, 2008.