Thursday, June 4, 2009

Plug-in cars: Moving Forward

I write a column for the Electric Auto Association newsletter, Current EVents. Here's my June column.

The trajectory remains clear, and the pace has quickened. Plug-in cars are inevitable. Nissan appears intent on opening up a market for mid-price range electric cars within two years. Mitsubishi has begun to manufacture the iMiev in the thousands for the Japanese market. GM may be in bankruptcy but remains unwavering in its commitment to have the Volt in some showrooms by November 2010. The other carmakers domestic and foreign have less firm but well press-released plans for plug-ins. The open question is what forces will drive the process and therefore at what pace. Veteran automakers, oil companies, and federal and state governments have been both the prime movers and obstacles to plug-in cars in the past and they remain so today. GM waxed hot and cold on the EV1. California’s ZEV mandate put EVs into consumers’ hands, only to be eviscerated by automaker and oil lobbying, federal intervention, and CARB’s capitulation to well-funded hydrogen hype.

However, the power relationships have shifted somewhat. In the past industry ultimately called the shots. Today the federal government holds the cards. The taxpayer is financing the American automakers’ survival and their future. Will we get our money’s worth?

President Obama has stated a commitment to 1 million plug-in cars by 2015. Policies and incentives are in place that could get us there. The federal consumer tax credit awaits major automaker cars that can claim them. It’s far from a slam dunk. Automakers and major environmental organizations stood behind the President as he unveiled a new national regime of higher CAFE and greenhouse gas emission standards. The plan calls for 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for light trucks and SUVs by 2016; no automaker lawsuits; and California subscribes to the national program through 2016. Rulemaking will determine the extent to which this new regime will promote plug-in cars beyond the initial tens of thousands that seem slated to appear from the majors beginning with MY 2011. I suspect without some explicit direction from the top, prodded from those of us below, the automakers will do everything to achieve the requirements with conventional vehicles, eschewing the greater near term cost and long-term benefit of transitioning toward plug-in electric drive components and batteries. Toyota, the automaker arguably best positioned and most experienced in the ways of electric drive, has scarcely hidden its intention to go slow on plug-ins while touting small incremental mileage gains on the gasoline-only Prius and the green glitz of an optional solar roof.

Energy Secretary Chu’s decision to defund hydrogen fuel cell vehicle programs was an unexpected and welcome decision. It hasn’t led to an immediate abandonment by the automakers of this long over-subsidized initiative, but it will help put a stopper in the drain on resources accelerated under President Bush. As high officials of CalEPA and CARB got wind of Chu’s analysis of H2 and FCVs, they reportedly went to DC and lobbied furiously if unsuccessfully to pull him back. California hasn’t blinked in its commitment to Schwarznegger’s pet project, the hydrogen highway. “Energy” companies are poised to receive the lion’s share of $50 million dollars to install a few more H2 filling stations. Despite this ongoing investment and years of institutional neglect of plug-in technology, more than ten times the number of electric cars are driving around than FCVs and more than twenty times the number of EV charging stations exist in California.

The National Hydrogen Association (members include Chevron, GM, Shell, Toyota, Honda, CARB and UC Davis), the California Hydrogen Business Council, and the US Fuel Cell Council are not happy with Chu’s cuts. But their dreams haven’t yet been sunk. In addition to the California funds there is federal stimulus money, $41 million by mid-April, being doled out to their projects, many of zero environmental benefit. Such as the $1.1 million Anheuser-Bush will receive and $1.3 million FedEx will get to replace grid-connected zero emission battery forklifts with fuel cell forklifts. The total for fuel cell forklifts this round is $10.8 million, resulting in a net emissions and petroleum increase as grid electricity is replaced with non-renewable hydrogen hauled in diesel trucks.

On the federal level the signs are that biofuels will get great and sympathetic attention. Secretary Chu is a big advocate, having brought in hundreds of millions of oil company dollars for biofuel research to the universities with which he has been affiliated. Under Obama’s plan flex-fuel vehicles will continue to garner enhanced credits despite decreased mileage and fuel unavailability. The politics of ethanol and the dream that our greenhouse gas, particulate and petroleum problems can me mitigated away incrementally with fundamentally unchanged vehicles makes the push for electric drive more difficult.

The push for hydrogen fuel cell and ethanol vehicles is essentially driven by the corporations with an interest. It is consumers who are driving the demand for plug-in cars. Although the future of plug-in cars looks brighter than ever, our work is cut out for us. No plug, no deal!