Batteries not Bullets

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I might have heard James Woolsey* deliver his opening speech on clean energy at the 58th Conference World Affairs in Boulder, except that it’s been a very busy week. There were presentations for Colorado Interfaith Power & Light in Denver. A wave energy start-up wanted input on its marketing message and a new urbanism real estate developer wanted some guidance on solar photovoltaics. The Green House Network needed someone to administer registration for a conference on climate change and coal-fired plants…so I signed on. Because I couldn’t put it down, I finished reading “Electric Universe” by David Bodanis.

And my dad came out from New York for a brief visit. He’s a corporate attorney – Chinese and Saudi clients…you get the drift – with an ivy undergrad engineering degree. Growing up, time alone together was scarce (divorce, etc); I recall being truly alone him only once, in his garden, talking about tomatoes. (We’re both nuts about gardening.) I don’t have a garden these days, but I do have the ‘brae bio-bus’ project. Absent easy chit-chat about purple heirlooms and pests, I hit him up for advice on the electrical configuration for the bio-bus. I showed him my two maintenance-free 6volt 220ah Lifeline batteries, the solar trickle charger on the starter batteries, and my favorite new toy, a Xantrex 400watt modified sine wave inverter, battery, AC/DC box with charge control panel, AM/FM radio and AC wall wart charger. I pulled out pictures of a 2000watt pure sine wave inverter/charger, a 300amp T fuse block, a distribution box, and solar panels – and the schematic I’d drawn. He thumbed through “The RVers’ Guide to Solar Battery Charging: 12volt DC-120volt AC Inverters” and a Real Goods catalog. Taking shelter from a rare drizzle in Denver, could my dad figure out how AC shore power connects to the inverter/charger? Yes, indeed.

Accelerating Advanced Hybrid Technology into the Marketplace

In the midst of this fascination with the electric universe, I spoke with David West, founding member of the Plug-in Hybrid Development Consortium and Vice President of Marketing for Raser Technologies – an R&D company that develops and licenses advanced electric motor and controller technology. Raser is a member of the Consortium, along with: A123Systems, International Battery, Delta-Q Technologies, Daiken, ENAX, Electrovaya, Maxwell Technologies, and two utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

All Consortium members have a financial interest in market adoption of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (or PHEV) – from the manufacturers of components like batteries to the electric utilities. Yet, I’ve heard enough people interested in clean energy declare defensively, “I’m not a tree hugger,” that David’s comments were refreshing. Plug-in hybrids aren’t just about making money; no, they are also about making a better planet. These hybrids are part of a viable vision – one in which the power of batteries, not the force of bullets, meets our growing demand for energy.

The PHEV is not a brand new car, but a line extension of existing models (“I’ll take that spiffy number over there in midnight blue, the PHEV with a roof rack, thank you!”) The fuel efficiency and low emissions of PHEVs put to shame not only standard combustion engines, but also other non-plug-in hybrids (and pseudo-hybrids…see below). We’re talking 100+ MPG.

DaimlerChrysler is the first (and only) manufacturer building plug-in hybrids but is focused on passenger vehicles and sedans, like a 15-passenger van prototype called the Dodge Sprinter. This PHEV, based on Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle technology, can get up to 20 miles on electric power. (Not quite the rig for me, bio-bus and all.) So, how does the average car-buying consumer get from “I want to buy a PHEV, darn it!” to cruising down the road in a fully-warrantied, mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric vehicle from a major auto maker?

I posed the question to Felix Kramer of CalCars which advises and supports the Consortium. “That’s the Holy Grail,” Felix replied, “That’s what we’re trying to make happen. And we don’t have an auto maker stepping up to do it. Once the auto maker does, it will be one to two years.” CalCars is a non-profit startup formed by entrepreneurs, engineers, environmentalists and consumers that tackles national security, jobs and global warming – at the same time. It is presenting PHEVs, along with wind and solar power, as the coordinated response to two of today’s greatest challenges: global warming and energy security.

Market Viability

The tipping point – when climate change/global warming is part of the national consciousness and influences purchasing decisions – is upon us. But energy security? My dad left me a copy Kevin Phillips’ “American Theocracy.” Part I of the book is titled ‘Oil and American Supremacy,’ and it describes our long history of exchanging bullets for energy, right up through the current invasion of Iraq. To quote Congressman Ron Paul of Texas (“Iran: The Next Neocon Target”) who spoke last week on the House floor about the high price tag of bullets for oil, “Where’s the outrage?”

Not waiting for the ‘energy security tipping point’ – or the outrage – Plug-in Partners, a national grass-roots initiative out of Austin, Texas, is taking soft orders to demonstrate market interest in PHEV to auto makers – to demonstrate the viability of PHEVs to the big guys (who have gotten so big they can’t see their own toes.) The major auto makers are, apparently, incapable of kicking themselves into gear, but they do have that marketing/PR thing down pat…if it’s got a battery and some electricity, but it still gets lousy fuel efficiency, call it a hybrid! That’s the ticket!

It’s so sad. The gears of “free market capitalism” vis-à-vis transportation – a market that responds to market signals – are utterly gummed up. Jump-starting the PHEV car market will require the likes of CalCars, the Plug-In Hybrid Development Consortium, Plug-in Partners, Woolsey and a flotilla of like-minded people…and one, just one, major auto maker.

In a year or two, I’d like to be towing a (little) PHEV behind my bio-bus and, in true American fashion (if I can’t live and work and eat all within walking distance, or avail myself of public transportation), I hope to be salivating over the next iteration of clean, efficient cars like the Extreme Hybrid™ – a car that gets hundreds of miles to the gallon. And, of course, I’ll be hoping my PHEV makes my Porsche-driving brother really jealous – for all the right reasons.

*“Woolsey, CIA director for President Clinton from 1993 to 1995, a Booz Allen Hamilton vice president and a member of the American Commission on Energy Policy, said a combination of non-grain ‘cellulosic’ ethanol, ethanol-burning cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles are among the best ways to wean the country from fossil fuels. Woolsey drives a Toyota Prius with a bumper sticker that reads ‘Osama bin Laden hates my car’ and has solar cells on his roof. Woolsey has a clear distaste for America’s financing both sides of what he calls ‘the long war’ with Islamic radicals in the Middle East…Where does that money come from? ‘When you pull into a filling station, turn the rear-view mirror just a little bit so you can look at yourself,’ Woolsey told the full house at Mackey Auditorium. There are plenty of others to blame, starting with auto makers churning out Hummers to government policy that gives tax breaks to people who buy them, Woolsey said.” The Boulder Daily Camera, Tuesday, April 11, 2006.

1 reply
  1. AMR
    AMR says:

    Can you help me at all? I am trying to develop a means to heat/hot water/ cook/ dry clothes domestically with Hydrogen. Will need to create electricity for starters.

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