Thursday, April 16, 2009

Center Nervous About Plug-In Hybrid Car Development

The Center is very nervous about the capability of America's auto industry to produce and sell plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in large numbers. President Obama's own auto industry task force, which is trying to help GM and Chrysler emerge from the crisis that left them needing $17.4 billion in government loans, casts doubt on the Volt, which will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term. GM has not announced pricing for the Volt, but it's expected to cost between $30,000 and $40,000. The Center was one of the first environmental groups in America pushing for utilities to get into the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle manufacturing business. Maybe there needs to be a more dynamic partnership between the auto industry and the utility industry. We marry electric vehicles to nuclear power plants to reduce smog, greenhouse gases and reduce our dependence on imported oil.

President Barack Obama's campaign pledge to put 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015 is faced with technical and engineering hurdles and the realities of the economy and the price of gasoline. It took eight years to get 1 million hybrids on the road in the United States and the president's goal could help revitalize the struggling U.S. auto industry and begin shifting motorists away from the gas pump. President Obama toured a California Edison electric utility company electric car facility in Pomona, California in March where he announced $2.4 billion to develop advanced batteries and electric cars.

Plug-in hybrids allow motorists to drive a limited number of miles on battery power before the engine switches over to run on gasoline or other fuels. A driver can plug the car into a conventional wall outlet at night and be ready to go electric again in the morning. The cars could dramatically reduce gasoline use because many commuters drive less than 40 miles a day. The administration has said the vehicles would play a role in its goal to reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut greenhouse gas emissions and create "green" jobs.

During his campaign, Obama promised $4 billion in tax credits to automakers to revamp their plants to build plug-ins, and a $7,000 tax credit for consumers who buy early versions of the cars. He even pledged to convert the White House vehicle fleet to plug-ins within a year, as security permits, and require half of the cars bought by the government to be plug-in or all electric by 2012. The tax credits were included in the stimulus package.

One of the biggest hurdles is whether their large lithium ion batteries are ready for mass production. Some analysts have pegged the cost of the batteries at $1,000 per kilowatt hour, which could add about $16,000 to the cost of a first-generation Volt and thousands of dollars to a plug-in Prius. None of the major automakers has made a firm commitment on the mass production of plug-ins that would be required to meet Obama's goal. Conventional gas-electric hybrids account for less than 3 percent of the car market and it took about eight years to get 1 million hybrids on the road in the U.S., according to automotive consulting firm R.L. Polk & Company. (AP/AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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