Plugging into Energy Policy Consensus

I have always been an early adopter. I can remember walking around a car lot in Houston in 1959 looking at the novel Volkswagen Beetles. They were just beginning to import them from Germany. Texans were skeptical. I heard one say, as he kicked the tires with a cowboy boot: “Ain’t much car.”

But it was all the car I needed. That sage green Beetle was my first car. I loved it. We were a movement, we Beetle owners. We would wave at one another on the road. I named my Beetle the “Beepnik,” (remember the Spudnik and Beatniks of the era), and I took it all the way to Los Angeles, even though it wasn’t fast enough to enter a freeway, and to southern Thailand, even though the steering wheel was on the wrong side.

I was still looking for novelty as I drove my Prius to the Plug-In 2008 conference in San Jose, CA, July 23. What I found was that plug-in hybrids are no longer that novel. There were several in the exhibit hall.

It is astonishing how quickly the simple notion of plug-in hybrids has moved from fringe idea to the obvious next step in the nation’s energy future. Two of the men most responsible for this change, Andy Frank and Felix Kramer, were at the conference.

Frank, often called the father of plug-in hybrids, has been working on them for 30 years. Repeatedly turned down by Detroit he and his students at the University of California at Davis would respond by converting one of the company’s models to a plug-in hybrid.

Kramer, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and activist, noticed that Toyota’s Prius actually had a switch (in Japanese models) that would change the power from gasoline to electricity. He bugged Toyota for years to manufacture plug-in hybrids, even though they said they never would.

Toyota now says it will put out a plug-in hybrid in 2010, and struggling General Motors has bet the farm on its plug-in Volt also due out in 2010. Bob Lutz, vice chairman of GM, illustrates how this hydra headed energy crisis can bring very different people together. Lutz, who oversees the Volt project, told reporters he thinks global warming is a “total crock of shit,” but he is very worried about energy security — not to mention the future of his company.

Frank, in an interview following his keynote address, told me that plug-in hybrids or electric cars may be the only way to go after “energy self-sufficiency, global warming, and peak oil.”

As chief technology officer for the start-up Efficient Drive Train Inc. and professor emeritus at UC Davis, Frank has demonstrated that plug-ins can run 90% on electricity and 10% on liquid fuel.

“And that 10% can be a low-carbon biofuel,” he said. “That kind of scenario can get us off of oil entirely, because we don’t use oil to generate electricity.”

Frank and Kramer has played a key role in raising plug-in hybrids to the highest energy policy counsels. It was President Bush who introduced the idea to Americans by mentioning it in his State of the Union address three years ago.

Andy Grove, a founder of the seminal Silicon Valley company Intel, gave the opening keynote address for the San Jose conference. Grove says energy independence in the wrong goal. Instead, what we need is energy resilience. He thinks one way to get that is to switch from reliance on oil to electricity.

Grove pointed out that it has taken ten years for the popular Toyota Prius to capture 3% of the U.S. market. He called for a plan to convert 10 million of the biggest gas guzzlers — pick ups, vans and SUVs — to plug-in hybrids with the government picking up half the cost of the conversion.

What is important about the plug-in hybrid is not the technology. It is the technology’s demonstrated ability to build consensus among disparate interests whose constant warfare has paralyzed energy policy for decades.

Who doesn’t want cheaper gasoline? Surely this is a point of agreement. But some of us want to save the planet from climate change, while others still think climate change is a hoax. Some think energy security lies in oil fields off shore or in Alaska. Some think is requires military capture and protection of Middle East oil fields.

By offering a short-term answer to high gasoline prices and a long-term step to a low carbon economy, plug-in technology brings together almost all of the interests that now create chaos in our energy policy: Republicans, Democrats, McCain, Obama, environmentalists, drill America dry firsters, peace advocates, militarists, Detroit, motorists, electric utilities. And, if advertising is any guide, even Big Oil.

Plug-in hybrids are, of course, only a bridge technology to electric cars with advanced batteries which will allow driving ranges equal to gasoline cars.

In an economy stunned by high gasoline prices and financial industry meltdown, renewables are one of the few bright spots. Banks won’t fund even profitable businesses, but “they are throwing money at renewable projects,” said Tobin Booth, CEO of Blue Oak Energy, the solar engineering firm which designed Google’s big solar PV project at its headquarters.

People like Frank and Kramer remind me of what Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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Mark Braly was energy advisor to the mayor of Los Angeles during the 70s energy shock, author of the city's prize-winning energy plan, and president of a State of California non-profit corporation which made loans to renewable energy businesses. Now retired, he is a City of Davis, California, planning commissioner working on the city's zero-carbon program. He is president of the non-profit Valley Climate Action Center.

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