Better Place (formerly Project Better Place) has scored a coup in the California Bay Area. The electric vehicle startup has struck a deal with the region, including the cities of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, to set up a $1 billion charging network for electric cars, with car availability beginning in 2012.

Unlike its charging network in Israel, it looks like the Better Place network in the Bay Area is a plan to support electric car development throughout the state. The deal in Israel involved a tie-up with Nissan-Renault to make the small cars that work with the stations, which swap out depleted batteries for new ones.

California has a rather larger area and population, and a diverse set of companies that want to commercialize electric cars. That’s likely why it was clearly stated that the thousands of Better Place stations to be installed in northern California will be agnostic to the type of electric car, allowing charging of cars with either fixed or replaceable batteries.

The announcement took place today at San Francisco’s city hall, and was attended by the mayors of the three cities, as well as governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Better Place’s founder, Shai Agassi. Relatively few hard details were given, outside of the amount of capital to be invested and the project’s start date, with permitting beginning in early 2009 and construction in 2010. But the tone of the speakers suggested that California is finally becoming serious about electric cars.

That might seem to have been the case before, but it’s worth remembering that California was the backdrop for previous failures to commercialize electric cars, providing inspiration for the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? And the California Air Resources Board has repeatedly relaxed requirements for automakers throughout its lifetime, providing loopholes to escape switching off the combustion engine.

With serious investment going into this project, it looks like this time, the electric car might just survive.

Update: The mayors’ nine-point plan to commercialize electric cars in the Bay Area is reprinted below:

  • Expedited permitting and installation of electric vehicle charging outlets at homes, business, parking lots, and other buildings throughout the Bay Area;
  • Incentives for employers to install EV charging systems in their workplace and provide similar incentives to parking facilities and other locations where EV charging stations can be installed;
  • Harmonize local regulations and standards across the region that govern EV infrastructure to achieve regulatory consistency for EV companies as well as expanded range for EV consumers;
  • Establish common government programs that promote the purchase of EVs;
  • Link EV programs and infrastructure to regional transit and air quality programs;
  • Establish programs for aggressive pooled-purchase orders for EVs in municipal, state government and private sector fleets and future commitment of purchasing preference for EV vehicles;
  • Expedited permitting and approval for facilities that provide extended-range driving capability for EVs in the region through battery exchange locations or fast-charging;
  • Identify and secure suitable standard (110V) electric outlets for charging low voltage EVs in every government building in 2009; and
  • Identify roll-out plan for placement of 220V EV charging equipment throughout each city including city parking lots and curbside parking.