Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Investors Daily: Pull the Plug on Ethanol

Investors Business Daily posted an editorial this week, Just Plain Fuelish, that just plain gets it. A smorgasbord of research alternatives and subsidized if politically profitable good intentions just won't cut it anymore. IBD is ready to choose. And they choose electricity, not ethanol. The State of the Union may have seen Sen. Grassley dancing in the aisles, but Investors rains on the ethanol parade.
By now, credible economists and scientists have debunked the myth that ethanol can play anything more than a small supporting role in the energy-security mission. Ethanol has less power per gallon than gasoline. It can be produced profitably only with fat subsidies. Making it from corn (the only current source in this country) consumes so much other resources that the net energy savings are, by some accounts, nonexistent.
But IBD believes that the political juice of ethanol is distorting policy decisions.
There is a well-organized and influential ethanol lobby in this country, led by corn farmers, food processors such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and politicians such as Grassley.
Advocacy for plug-in cars is much less organized and underfunded. The utilities need to step up, declare the benefits of electricity in cars, and promote its product. And lobby as fearlessly as do Big Oil and Big Corn.

Hat tip to Felix Kramer of CalCars

Detroit Faces Skeptical Washington; Bush Long on Rhetoric

The Detroit News story today, Big 3's call for U.S. aid gets cool reception, outlines the predicament faced by automakers and Washington. Many lawmakers are pressuring for action on fuel efficiency. The automakers came begging for research dollars and restraint on CAFE standards. As Michigan Democrats line up with the most Republicans to protect the Big 3 on CAFE standards, Bush has already disappointed Detroit on the money front:
GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG were disappointed their request for $500 million in federal funds over five years for research into advanced batteries was not mentioned during the State of the Union. It is not likely to be part of the president's budget request set to be unveiled Monday.
It seems the president, for all his plug-in promotion, isn't allocating dollars commensurate with his rhetoric. Energy Washington Week reports PHEVs getting short shrift:
Although increased attention is being paid to the technology, it is not sure how much support the president will lend PHEV in the 2008 budget. The White House says hybrid funding will be higher than last year's budget request but would not elaborate. Hydrogen and fuel-cell vehicle R&D still comprise the lion's share of the current 2006 budget, an allocation that critics said was to the detriment of other vehicle programs, including advanced battery development. The earmarks attached to the hydrogen initiative, alone, were enough to place other DOE programs in jeopardy, these critics warned.
Energy Department grants -- to the tune of about $44 million -- funded just over half of Ford's plug-in hydrogen fuel cell vehicle unveiled last week in Washington.
A Tesla Roadster for every member of Congress would have been a better use of the money.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Jewish Electric Car?

A report from out of Davos reports on talks to build electric cars in Israel.
At the just-ended World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Shimon Peres held informal talks about building an electric-car factory in Israel with representatives of Toyota and Renault.

It's about time. If there's one country that ought to have long ago developed a domestic electric car industry it is Israel. No oil of its own should be reason enough. Every drop purchased on the international markets propping up its sworn enemies should be reason enough. Not very far to drive in this very small country should be reason enough. Lots of high tech brainpower should be reason enough. Dayenu.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tesla Powered Th!nks?

Michael Kanellos over at reports from the recent Clean-Tech Investor Summit that Tesla Motors will be selling its battery packs to other electric car companies. First in line appears to be Th!nk Global of Norway with its ready-for-manufacture Th!nk City.

Martin Eberhard, CEO of Tesla Motors, said that Tesla has formed a group called Tesla Energy Now to sell battery packs to other companies.

"A certain unnamed Scandinavian electric car company has become a customer," he said.

Sitting two seats down on the panel was Jan-Olaf Willums, president of Th!nk Global...

I drove a 2001 Ford Th!nk City for three years in San Francisco. It is the car that brought me forth out of the oil age, and made me realize it was not technology, batteries, or consumer acceptance that was keeping electric cars out of the showroom. As you can see in the film Who Killed the Electric Car?, I was not a happy camper when Ford took away my car.

The redesigned 2003 Th!nk City was stopped on the assembly line when Ford killed its electric program. Since being taken over by a Norwegian investment group last year, Jan-Olaf Willums, president of Th!nk Global, has been searching for a viable, affordable battery to power the new Th!nk City. A Tesla-powered Th!nk City would be a welcome entry into the growing London market for congestion charge avoiding electric cars, and capture attention in California and New York, where hundreds once roamed (gas) free.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Reality of AltFuels Under Bush

Maybe he means it this time. Perhaps the 7th SOTU mention will be the charm. But a story in today's NY Times, Energy Research on a Shoestring, suggests otherwise. President Jimmy Carter established the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the edge of the Rockies, but its always been afterthought of America's energy policy.
The hopes for this neglected lab brightened a bit just over a year ago when President Bush made the first presidential call on the lab since Mr. Carter and spelled out a vision for the not-too-distant future in which solar and wind power would help run every American home and cars would operate on biofuels made from residues of plants.

But one year after the president’s visit, the money flowing into the nation’s primary laboratory for developing renewable fuels is actually less than it was at the beginning of the Bush administration.
'Nuff said.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Overflow Crowd in Lodi (!) for Electric Car Film

Lodi News-Sentinel Reports Over 400 people turned out for a free viewing of Who Killed the Electric Car? in Lodi, CA last night. Lodi is not hippie or Hollywood. It's an agricultural town of less than 60,000 in reliably Republican San Joaquin County. The event was sponsored by the Lodi Municipal Electric utility, which leases five all electric RAV4 EVs from Toyota.

Angela Daniel is concerned about America's reliance on foreign oil and would consider driving an electric car if the technology was more readily available....

...Many people in the audience said they were interested in buying an electric car but lacked the information. Gene Corriea said he was there to learn more about electric vehicles.

"It's an interesting subject," he said. "It's something we should have but they won't let us."

...Davey Drouin, a teacher from Lodi, got there early to avoid the crowd of people, some of whom waited 15 minutes to get into the theater. He said he was impressed with the turnout.

"I can see this crowd in Santa Cruz or Berkeley, but not Lodi," he said. "I was expecting to be the only one here."

SOTU: Will Bush Plug Plug-ins?

First hint from the NY Times says ethanol will be the big winner in Bush's State of the Union Address. Advocates of plug-in cars are hoping for a another good word and perhaps some funding for plug-in hybrids. We'll see.

Springtime for Ethanol (registration required) In his State of the Union address, President Bush is expected to call for a huge increase in the amount of ethanol that refiners mix with gasoline, probably double the current goal of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.

While the details of the proposal are not known, 15 billion gallons of ethanol would work out to more than 10 percent of the country’s current gasoline consumption, and is far beyond the current capacity of about 5.4 billion gallons.

At least half of the new ethanol would come from corn, signaling the administration’s support to the Midwest farm states that have benefited the most from the recent ethanol boom.

For an industry once dominated by the will of a single powerful producer, Archer Daniels Midland, ethanol has come a long way, joining the oil industry and producers of major agricultural commodities as an entrenched political force in Washington. And it now enjoys a powerful role in presidential politics because of Iowa’s status as one of the first states to select delegates to the parties’ nominating conventions.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Vote for the Volt

GM wants to know if you think they should make the Volt. As of today, it's Yes: 106,000; No: 1800.
Vote for the Volt. It can't hurt.

UPDATE: FWIW Sun 6pm. Yes: 156,000

UPDATE: Tuesday 1am: Yes 200,000

UPDATE: Tues 6pm: Yes 214,000

UPDATE: Friday 12:30 am Yes 265,000

UPDATE: Saturday 5:45 pm Yes 287,000

Automaker Plug-in Hybrid PR Flurry

In the wake of the Chevy Volt presentation by GM, my "plug-in hybrid" google alert has filled my inbox with reports from other automakers about their PHEV projects. The buzz about the Volt has generated automaker PR reactions. One big corporate "ME TOO!" Daimler/Chrysler has dusted off its long ago announced Sprinter PHEV. Nancy Goia of Ford got some ink for comments at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit. Even Honda got in on the act.

Next up, President Bush. Look for handouts to Big Auto for "battery research" in the State of the Union address. USABC 2.0? You can't keep such a good idea as plug-in hybrids down, but it can be delayed. $500 million for battery research buys time. 50,000 grants of $10,000 to purchasers of plug-in cars might just drive the market.
Press Release Source: Chrysler Group
DaimlerChrysler Only Manufacturer Building and Testing Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles with Lithium-Ion Battery Technology in Customer Fleets
Autochannel (press release) - USA
- Lithium-ion battery research will accelerate future hybrid development
- DaimlerChrysler investigates plug-in technology with test fleet
- Dodge Sprinter Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) can drive up to 20 real-world miles on electric-only power
- Industry first PHEV combined with diesel for maximum fuel efficiency
AUBURN HILLS, Mich., Jan. 19 -- More than 20 Dodge Sprinter Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) will be placed in the United States between now and the first quarter of 2008 as ...

Ford Mulls Plug-In Hybrids
Car and Driver - Ann Arbor,MI,USA
Ford is considering adding plug-in hybrid vehicles, which can be recharged by existing electrical systems, to its future product portfolio, the Dow Jones Newswires reported, citing the company's hybrid vehicle director.
Nancy Gioia, speaking to the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, said, "The biggest barrier [to such technology] is the battery."...

Honda considering plug-in hybrids
Business Portal 24 (press release) - Bad Lausick,Sachseri,Germany

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Grist Writer Gets the URGE2 Electrify

David Roberts is a staff writer at Grist, an online enviro magazine. He's written a piece in that deserves attention. As Roberts' posits, 2007 holds out tremendous promise, the stars are aligned. Everyone is paying attention to green. But enviros are all over the map. They have no consensus message.
Everything from light bulbs to organic food, to flex-fuel cars to a carbon freeze tax—no, make that a cap-and-trade program—clamors for attention.
So Roberts decided to find the point of agreement,
a common overarching chorus, one with which everybody from security hawks to conservationists to evangelicals can sing along.
I hereby propose just such an overarching message, a mere five words long: Use renewably generated electricity, efficiently, or URGE² .... As far as greens are concerned, everything that advances that goal should be supported. What doesn't should be ignored or opposed.
Putting renewable electricity into plug-in cars would move to the top of any such coherent enviro agenda, and of course ethanol moves down.
The simple fact all greens need to internalize is that it's easier to find clean, renewable sources of electricity than it is to find clean, renewable liquid fuels. The logic is inexorable: We need to shift almost all power use to electricity.... electrification has got to be the end goal.
That means dialing back the ethanol frenzy. It means pushing for plug-in hybrids and eventually fully electric vehicles, as well as an electrified national high-speed rail system. But primarily it means escalating the fight against public enemy No. 1: oil.
In California, I and over 50% of the drivers of electric cars have rooftop residential solar electricity. The interest in one led logically to the other. And so we pay neither Big Oil, nor our local utility. A green dream trifecta of energy independence, zero emissions, and zero carbon. If the Sierra Club, NRDC, and the Union of Concerned Scientists awaken from their CAFE-induced slumber and espouse such a message as Roberts' suggests, projects awaiting commercialization from a Toyota plug-in Prius to the Saturn plug-in Vue and the Volt just might get the jolt need. It's about the plug, stupid.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tortillas and Ethanol

Corn and petroleum course through our veins. As Michael Pollan convincingly argues in The Omnivore's Dilemma, what we eat has become almost as corn-based as our driving is petroleum-based. And without cheap oil, corn would not have become Big Corn, the big agricultural combines (principally ADM and Cargill). Now corn is making a play for a chunk of the transportation market once surrendered to Big Oil. The inefficiencies of corn ethanol be damned, Big Corn can make money on the ethanol boom coming and going.

It's been a different story for Mexico's farmers. They have had a tough time dealing with the influx of cheap American corn since NAFTA. As reported in Forbes, "The government eliminated its decades-old subsidy for tortillas in 1999 just as cheap corn imports were rising from the United States under NAFTA." Abundant petroleum-fueled American corn kept the price of tortillas down in Mexico City for a while. Then America found yet another use for corn, and the price has been bid up.
"The U.S. Agriculture Department said Friday that ethanol plants and foreign buyers are gobbling U.S. corn supplies, pushing prices as high as $3.40 a bushel, the highest in more than a decade."
Mexicans are clamoring for an explanation of why tortilla prices are rising so fast. But America is beginning to be willing to pay for independence from Big Oil. Ethanol may be a political, economic and energy boondoggle, but that doesn't mean it ain't got juice.

And now corn production is down.
"Nationwide in the United States, supplies of corn are expected to drop to 752 million bushels, a drop from last month's forecast of 935 million bushels and a steep decline from last year's supply of 1.967 billion bushels.
Our energy independence need not mean higher priced tortillas for the poor of Mexico. You can't eat electricity.

NPR Science Friday on the Chevy Volt

NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow spent half an hour on the Volt. Bill Moore of, Paul Scott of Plug In America. Enthusiasm and scepticism. Well worth the listen.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Associated Press report in The State of Columbia, South Carolina
"The Volt overcomes range, noise and power issues that plagued previous electric cars."
Noise issues?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Out of the Closet? Is the Saab BioPower a Plug-in Hybrid?

In Stockholm and LA it was just the BioPower 100, a 100% ethanol fueled hybrid. A premature press release identified it as a plug-in, but that was withdrawn and the plug was not to be found. It had, perhaps, been glued shut.

Now that the Volt has premiered in Detroit to huzzahs and widespread press, this Saab, yet another GM concept hybrid, has been unveiled, again. Although Plenty magazine identifies it as a plug-in, nothing in the press material I found confirms this. It does have a switch to run on lithium battery electric power for up to 20 km, but a plug does not appear to be part of the equation. Since 100% ethanol is hardly available, this must be considered truly a concept car. With a plug and a flex-fuel E85 capable engine, they'd really have something marketable. Don't hold your breath.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Chevy Volt: Can't We All Just Get Along?

What a difference a week or two can make.

Chris Paine, director of "Who Killed the Electric Car?," is attending the Detroit Auto Show. And he's not the pariah-in-residence. He's all charged up about the Chevy Volt.

So is Detroit. Just two weeks ago Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan was twisting Mr. Paine's words to justify GM killing the EV1. Now Phelan, GM, Paine and Chelsea Sexton, Plug In America's Executive Director, all seem to be on the same page.

'Paine is convinced GM is serious about the Volt and about making a transition from fossil fuel to electric power for its vehicles.

"Top management is behind this," he said. "GM is responding to the marketplace."'

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Chevy Volt & Ford Airstream: The Plug-in that Could Be & the Plug-in that Couldn't Possibly

Amidst the well-deserved hoopla about GM's plug-in serial hybrid Chevy Volt, Ford is touting its own equally ugly plug-in hybrid concept car. GM's vehicle is eminently buildable today, as it relies on two energy sources that are available: grid electricity and gasoline. Ford makes no pretense of its intention not to produce its car. In place of a small gasoline generator, it relies on a hydrogen fuel cell to generate the electricity once the grid-charged Lithium batteries are depleted.

Inspired by the classic Airstream, no one will expect to see anything like this anytime soon. Classic concept car fare. Given the fuel economy stats presented in Ford's press release, 41mpg equivalent, no one would want one anyway. (Not to mention the cost and unavailability of hydrogen.) The achievement, it must be said, is that somehow, even with grid-supplied electricity, the result is such pathetic fuel economy.

There is one important point to note in Ford's prototype. To the extent the industry's fuel cell project is real, it is coming to depend upon the much maligned battery to save its ass. Ford's announcement explicitly states that the fuel cell merely supplies additional electricity to the batteries that actually power the electric motor that drives the car. Honda's FCX also relies on an unspecified amount of battery power to make the car viable. Ford has interestingly chosen to ride the plug-in hybrid wave with the Airstream announcement. Perhaps a year ago this might have been touted as a hydrogen fuel cell concept car. Honda may yet stick a plug on its FCX. The times they are a changin'.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

It's Got a Name: Chevrolet "Volt" Plug-in Hybrid

With an Auto Show overview article dated tomorrow, Sunday, Jan 7, the New York Times becomes the first publication to name the much-anticipated GM plug-in hybrid vehicle.
"General Motors will unveil an electric concept car, the Chevrolet Volt, which has created the most buzz in advance of the show. G.M. says the Volt, a plug-in hybrid, could deliver the equivalent of 150 miles a gallon. The Volt thus promises — at least in theory, given that it could not be produced without a leap in battery technology — three times the mileage of a Toyota Prius."
Judging from the discussion last night at a Sierra Club-sponsored viewing of Who Killed the Electric Car? in Oakland, CA, the Volt might actually be a GM car people would buy.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Toward a Plug-in Hybrid Saturn Vue

GM today announced two contracts to "design and test lithium-ion batteries" for use in the Saturn Vue Plug-in Hybrid announced last month at the LA Auto Show. Johnson Controls/SAFT, the huge battery company at which President Bush first publicly announced his support for plug-in hybrids, received one contract. A partnership of Cobasys (Chevron/ECD) and A123 got the second. According to the press release, two variants of Lithium batteries will be "evaluated in prototype Saturn Vue Green Line plug-in hybrids beginning later this year."

One point of interest is that GM and Cobasys are forsaking the technology that could provide plug-in hybrids in the shortest time - the Nickel Metal Hydride battery for which Cobasys holds the patents and GM used in its 140-mile range EV1. While the future may belong to Lithium, a case can easily be made for the early roll-0ut of NiMH plug-ins. Hundreds of millions of safe, robust, reliable miles have been driven in EV1s and Toyota RAV4 EVs, as well as billions of miles in conventional hybrids, all using NiMH. If the automakers felt compelled by the market or the government or a petroleum crisis to bring plug-in cars to showrooms asap, NiMH it would be. Chevron would add royalty payments to its ample bottom line, but clearly that's not enough of a motivator.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Toyota President's New Year's Letter

Toyota released (and reprints) President Watanabe's New Year's letter to employees. He mentions continued focus on hybrid technologies, including "research and development for plug-in hybrids" and the introduction in Brazil of a "flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) that can run on 100 percent bioethanol fuel." Not a word about hydrogen or fuel cells. If Toyota really intends to roll out "environmentally considerate vehicles that are suited to the infrastructure of each region and meet the needs of customers," plug-in Toyotas should be coming to America. We've got the ubiquitous electrical grid that a US Dept of Energy study finds could "fuel 84 percent of the country's 220 million vehicles if they were plug-in hybrid electrics," and no infrastructure for 100% bioethanol fuel.

"Concerning the environment, Toyota has positioned hybrid technologies as core technologies that can contribute to resolving environmental issues, and we will undertake development with a commitment to leading the advancement of such technologies. We will continue to enhance our hybrid vehicle lineup and also actively engage in research and development for plug-in hybrids. In response to the diversification of energy sources, we intend to introduce in the spring in Brazil a flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) that can run on 100 percent bioethanol fuel.

Based on the concept of "the right vehicle for the right place at the right time," Toyota is committed to developing environmental technologies and rolling out environmentally considerate vehicles that are suited to the infrastructure of each region and meet the needs of customers."