Spending a week in Washington DC can certainly change one’s perspective on things. I had gone at the end of November essentially to look at the technical side of the Electric Drive Transportation Association’s meeting— batteries — but what I saw was an amazing snapshot of how US-style democracy really does work and how not just one but two grass roots movements can actually change things.
The first grass roots movement I saw in action prevented a fairly odious book being published by one of the world’s most powerful media organisations— a powerful reaction to US public opinion and that’s been seen around the world— you all know what I’m talking about and this was all rather second hand for me through Larry King— he’s not on TV in the UK.
The second has received little attention in media beyond the USA and that is the so called Plug-in Partners—the lobbying group that started back in August 2005 by a municipal power utility in Austin, Texas, with the sole aim of getting car makers to take the plug-in hybrid car seriously. One way of doing that was to create soft orders— intentions to buy if the product was there and the lobbying campaign, which has signed up 50 major cities and many businesses in the US, has generated a potential 9,000 orders.
Interest in plug-ins has, I think, been mixed until recently. Back in the spring, Toyota’s David Hermance, the great communicator for the Prius, who was sadly killed in a plane crash last week, was definitely against…. As making a Prius do significant all electric range on the batteries it had would have produced a string of warranty claims. He put the company first.
But over the last few months, a succession of car makers have given their support to building such hybrids and on the very start of the EDTA congress, GM announced its intention to have a version of its Saturn VUE hybrid as a plug-in — due for launch in 2010.
This people-led movement has captured the spirit of the times — concerns about the rocketing cost of gasoline, fears about security and a desire to be free of a dependence on foreign oil—a metaphor for many things. In the UK, you just don’t get these opportunities.
It caught the imagination of George Bush too, but too late to make any impact for the Republicans in the 2006 elections. No matter; Democrats with beaming smiles told the EDTA conference that change would happen and the Freedom Car Initiative, to date heavily biased in the fuel cell direction, will receive a significant course correction with a major emphasis on batteries. The utility players love it too. They can sell their under utilised base load (20,000 MW in California alone) to customers who have a power outlet in their home garage. And that’s what it’s all about, the powers that be have woken up to the fact the PHEV is a very achievable goal, helping the USA on a number of fronts and pleasing both “tree huggers” and industrialists— quite an achievement!
But we have to get the batteries right. By this time next year, money should be charging up the battery industry — in every chemistry.
Gerry Woolf has worked as a science and technology writer for (wait for it) – 25 years and is Editor and publisher of BEST (Batteries and Energy Storage Technology) Magazine. BEST is an international journal launched in 2003 and the leading publication covering battery and electrochemical power. It is available on line and in hard copy form on subscription only. How we get the batteries right and whose doing what to get them right is at the heart of BEST magazine, published quarterly from the UK. To find out more go to http://www.bestmag.co.uk/.