Silicon Valley came to Washington this week to talk about plug-in hybrids at a great conference organized by Google.org with Brookings. The combination of tech visionaries, electric cars on display, Washington heavy hitters such as John Dingell, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and even a couple of film stars, Peter Horton and Anne Sexton of Who Killed the Electric Car?, made for a great meeting.
Here are my notes from the standing room only event …
Strong keynotes from Dan Reicher of Google, who laid out Google’s road map for work on plug-in hybrids and renewable energy, Peter Darbee, the CEO of PG&E who gave an information packed speech on the role of the power industry as energy producer, Jim Woolsey, who pulled no punches on the Saudis and the Wahabi philosophy as it pertains to our need to achieve energy independence, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-S.C.), who pointed out that government should watch out for unintended consequences of its policy as in the impact on food prices due to support for ethanol, and Chairman John Dingell, who, noting that the auto industry is the only industry that now regulates low carbon, told his friends in other industries, “We’re coming to get you next.”
The conference was full of optimism, as it should have been, but PHEV pioneer Prof. Andy Frank reminded everyone that the oil industry is not going away any time soon and may have different ideas about the future of the electric car.
Shai Agassi gave his usual awesome presentation on Project Better Place, which is moving full speed ahead in Israel and Denmark with its zero-zero approach to no gas costs through a pure electric car and a free car with a contract. Other interesting speakers included Alan Madian, who laid out a road map for emissions reductions that was pessimistic, only because it assumes very slow turnover of cars.
Jack Hidary and Jim Woolsey asked why the U.S. can’t stimulate the retirement of older, gas guzzling vehicles as other countries do, and Jack pointed out this would also help the beleaguered U.S. auto industry.
I had a chance to try out Tesla, Chairman Elon Musk’s personal roadster. Tesla delivered its first production models last month. Controls are a bit close, though ergonomically sleek … the body features a good bit of light-weight carbon fibre but still smokes the coolness test. Moving around the floor of the conference, the car was utterly quiet. The range of 240 miles is impressive — enough to travel from New York to Washington one-way or from San Francisco to San Jose and back — though I would like to see about a hundred more miles to facilitate vacation trips — fill in the blanks on where you like to go.
Everyone seemed proud of the Detroit-engineered Chevy Volt, due to go into production in 2010. The concept model is sharp. If only they would put it into production it would be the sharpest car on the road. Using a serial hybrid system — electric and then gas in series, it will make trips under 40 miles gas-free but allow longer ranges using gas. But to remind everyone of the past, Peter Horton and Chelsea Sexton, stars of Who Killed the Electric Car?, were on hand.
The bottom line is that electric cars are coming. The question is how many people will buy them and whether the infrastructure will be ready. In this regard, Shai Agassi and Project Better Place’s concept of building out networks of plugs and battery charging stations in Israel and Denmark seems particularly promising. A few speakers pointed out that many people live in apartments and may have trouble charging electric cars if they park on the street.
Regarding the deeper question of the power that will ultimately run them, while electricity is currently about one-fifth the cost of gas, important questions remain about the power industry’s ability to produce the necessary power, clean or not. If people want to charge up during the day, hundreds of new, probably coal-fired power plants may be needed. On the other hand, if they charge up at night, today’s capacity may be sufficient. To prompt the latter, time-of-use pricing is a necessary requirement and it is a very open question
Whether today’s balkanized power industry can make the changes necessary to supply sufficient clean power is an open question. On the other hand, if America wants to do something, it can.
Ultimately it will come down to how seriously we want to make this happen.