If you listen to the enthusiastic founder and CEO of Better Place Shai Agassi, the ability to swap depleted electric car battery packs for fully charged ones at a dedicated swap station is an essential and much-needed part of electric vehicle infrastructure. 

But while the ultra-fast way of getting another 100+ miles of range into your electric car is to date the most hassle-free way of recharging even Better Place’s project partners are struggling to see a way to rollout battery swap stations for some time to come. 

“Better Place is brilliant,” said Renault U.K. head of electric vehicle program Andy Heiron. He was speaking at the Electric Vehicles: Public Debate jointly hosted in London yesterday by The Guardian newspaper and the French automaker. 

He continued, explaining that while the idea was sound the battery swapping system couldn’t possibly make good business sense yet, adding “[B]ut at £1million ($1.6 million) a piece we’re not going to see widespread stations yet. That is, until we see more cars on the road.”

Therein lies the ultimate problem: cost. 

Although that’s still cheaper than a gas station to build, fast swap facilities need tens of thousands, not just thousands of compatible cars on the roads in order for it to make financial sense.  Any less, and costs escalate out of hand. 

Which brings us to the alternatives.

Nissan’s own fast-charging direct current level 3 charging station costs $20,000 and  can recharge cars like the 2011 Nissan Leaf from empty to 80% full in a little under 30 minutes. 

While that’s 28 minutes longer to refuel than a better place swap station it also costs a lot less to install. In fact, for the cost of one single Better Place station, we estimate at least 35 ultra-fast level 3 stations could be built: and that includes a generous amount of money for groundwork, power supply routing and signage. 

As we’ve discussed before, fast charging stations are best suited to highway and freeway rest stops and places where electric car owners stop en-route to somewhere else. 

And unlike a single fast-battery swap station, a network of fast chargers along a highway or interstate route could be spread out, allowing cars to charge when needed rather than where available.

The future? Battery swap stations do have a part to play. But just not yet.