Tacoma News Tribune
September 14, 2008
Original link to column
The speaker at the “Beyond Oil” conference at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond could barely contain his excitement.
“We’re seeing the second coming of the electric car!” he gushed.
Not so fast, I have to say, after sitting through two days of PowerPoint-laden presentations and talks earlier this month from a variety of engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, software geniuses and even a former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The true day of the electric car in America is coming. It’s closer than it’s ever been. But it isn’t here yet. There’s a lot of work to do, some tough technical and political problems to be solved, before zero-emission electric cars bump our polluting gas guzzlers off the road.
But what I took away from the conference, sponsored by the Cascadia Center of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, is that the same economic shock to the system that $4-a-gallon gas delivered to American car owners, as well as increasing concern about climate change, has jolted new life into the electric-car movement.
Electric cars are no longer mainly the province of tinkerers and eccentrics who don’t mind puttering along city streets in oversized golf carts. Electric cars are very much on the minds of all the world’s largest automakers.
This month, General Motors might officially unveil the Chevy Volt, a plug-in gas-electric hybrid that’s supposed to go into U.S. mass production in 2010. Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi are all developing PHEVs, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
PHEVs are a particular enthusiasm of the Cascadia Center, whose leaders, Bruce Agnew and Steve Marshall, believe that PHEVs are the best short-term answer to our dependence on for eign oil and the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
I like this aspect of the Discovery Institute much better than its befuddling embrace of intelligent design. This is the fifth year Cascadia has sponsored its conference on alternate solutions to transportation problems. The latest event attracted 500 participants, more than double last year’s total.
One notable fan of plug-in hybrids is former Navy Admiral James Woolsey, who headed the CIA from 1993 to 1995. He drives a converted Toyota Prius that he plugs into a standard outlet at home. He claims its use costs him 2 cents a mile - a figure I suspect is a bit too low.
In any case, Woolsey turned out to be a compelling and wickedly witty speaker, and his message was simple: Ending America’s dependence on foreign oil is - or should be - a matter of national security.
What we’re doing now, Woolsey declared, is funding international terrorism every time we put our charge cards into fuel pumps. It makes little difference that Saudi Arabia, as the world’s leading oil producer, is supposedly a U.S. ally in the Middle East. The truth is that al-Qaida and the Saudi rulers live by the same extremist and oppressive Wahabi version of Islam, Woolsey said. The only difference in their fundamental views, he added, is that “they disagree on who should be in charge.”
Woolsey also noted that eight of the world’s nine largest oil-exporting nations are either autocratic or dictatorships. Some time ago the Saudis thwarted an attempted al-Qaida attack on a major Saudi oil facility. Had the attack succeeded, Woolsey maintained, the world would have been facing oil at $200 a barrel.
Moving the U.S. to electric vehicles is “absolutely essential,” Woolsey declared. Extension cords, he said, must replace gasoline fuel hoses.
How quickly might that happen? Plug-in hybrids won’t wean the country from foreign oil. The ultimate answer is all-electric cars. And what I heard in Redmond suggests that it will be years, if not decades, before an all-electric car can be successfully mass-produced and sold in America.
There are two serious technical obstacles: the high cost and limited effectiveness of electric batteries, and the lack of a national infrastructure of charging stations giving EVs a depending driving range much greater than the current 40 miles or so.
A new generation of lithium-ion batteries holds promise, but they are expensive and still take hours to recharge. Batteries that can be “fast-charged” in as little as 10 minutes are nowhere near reality just yet.
But Shai Agassi has a ridiculously simple way to solve the battery problem. And if his plan works - he has more than $200 million in venture capital behind it - he’ll help make Israel the world’s first nation to break the oil habit.
Agassi, 40, is an Israeli-born visionary who quit a top-ranking post at the giant German software firm SAP to start a nonprofit called Better Place. His talk, sans Power Point, mesmerized the conference audience. Like Woolsey, he drew a standing ovation.
With the firm backing of the Israeli government, Better Place will build and operate a system using solar energy to power a nationwide grid of charging stations for all-electric cars. Renault will provide the cars. Israeli drivers can charge the cars at home or at work if they wish. If they need to recharge on the road, they will pull up to a charging station and simply exchange tired batteries for fresh ones.
Drivers will be subscribers, paying by the mile much the same way cell phone users pay for minutes. The cars themselves will be loaded with complex software that, among other things, will tell drivers the location of the nearest charging stations and whether charging spots are available at the workplace or other destinations.
For its part, the Israeli government will drive demand by taxing EVs at only a fraction of the rate imposed on gas-fueled vehicles.
If all this sounds unrealistic, consider that Denmark and Portugal are also teaming up with Better Place to advance widespread EV use. Denmark will harness its wind-power system, the world’s largest. Germany is moving independently of Better Place toward its own system of EV infrastructure.
Will Agassi become the Bill Gates of electric cars? Agassi says his goal is to change the world, not to make money. But he might have a similar impact.
So what are we in America waiting for? The electric car is not quite ready for prime time, but that’s not the real problem. It’s simply our lack of national and political will. We’re still addicted to foreign oil, and the odds are that we won’t break the habit until we undeniably have no other choice.
David Seago retired in July as editorial page editor of The News Tribune. He contributes to the Inside the Editorial Page blog: blogs.thenewstribune.com/oped. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.