A mayoral trifecta from the San Francisco Bay Area said Thursday that Better Place will set up electric car charging stations throughout the region, making California its first market in the country.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup plans to set up stations in the next few years, readying them for electric cars to arrive starting in 2012, said Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place who has inked similar deals in Israel, Denmark and Australia. Agassi estimates that the project will cost about $1 billion.

Consumers will be able to stop by those stations and swap out batteries, a model that Agassi believes will make electric cars more appealing. Charging batteries can take hours.

Better Place also plans to set up stations where car owners can top off their batteries while they shop or dine. To make use of these stations, however, the cars will have to come with special software and converters.

Better Place has a partnership with Nissan-Renault to launch cars and recharging networks together, but Agassi said he hopes to work with other carmakers.

San Francisco rolled out the red carpet for Agassi, hosting a press event that featured mayors from San Jose and Oakland, and a steady lineup of speakers from private and public sectors, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office. Environmental advocate Bobby Kennedy, Jr. spoke, too.

"The first time I met Shai, who outlined his concept about how to push this transition, I told him I wanted to do anything I can with the rest of my life to make it happen," said Kennedy, who is an advisor for VantagePoint Venture Partners, a Better Place investor, as well as an attorney for Riverkeeper in Tarrytown, N.Y. "It's simple and elegant and genius, and it's going to work."

The politicians said they have come up with a nine-point plan to make the Bay Area the "electrical vehicle capital of America." The plan mostly involves making it easier for Agassi to get permits for his project, requiring public agencies to buy electric cars for their fleets and coming up with incentives for employers to install charging stations on their properties and for consumers to buy electric cars.

The press event was mostly a publicity extravaganza for Better Place and the mayors. News about Better Place's event began to swirl the night before, when the press conference was first announced (see Green Light post).

Agassi also made a speech this morning at UC Berkeley about the future of electronic cars before crossing the bay to join San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for the event. Some of it was sales pitch. Other parts were grounded better in reality.

Electric cars have been hampered historically by battery technology but that is changing. In fact, Agassi claimed – perhaps controversially – that batteries are now equal to or better than gas.

"The current batteries are good enough. They've got great price performance, better than we've got with gasoline," he said.

Michael Marks, another panelist alongside Agassi at the Berkeley tech event and former CEO of Flextronics, challenged Agassi's assertion.

Marks noted that a reasonable electric car costs about $60,000, mostly because of the cost of the battery. Scientists and researchers in general have also said that the energy density of batteries is nowhere near that of gas.

Then there are the costs of setting up and maintaining a network of charging stations. Agassi launched Better Place only last year, so he's going to face enormous doubt even while wining over admirers.

Agassi also has been in discussion with Hawaii about installing a charging network (see Better Place Yet to Close Hawaii Electric Car Deal).