During a visit to the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center in California yesterday, President Obama addressed how the $2.4 billion outlined in the stimulus fund to get more electric vehicles on the road is going to be spent. Will his idea actually work?
First, let’s look at the first section of Obama’s plan: “The Department of Energy is offering up to $1.5 billion in grants to U.S. based manufacturers to produce … highly efficient batteries and their components.” That’s responding to U.S. battery maker’s pleas for federal help to compensate for lagging behind other nation’s efforts in battery tech. But imagine 50 big companies getting involved and each getting a share–that’s only $30 million each. Sounds like a lot. Spread it over hiring expert staff, developing novel tech, pursuing blind alleyways, testing to comply with safety standards, taking prototypes into production…and the money quickly disappears. R&D is expensive, and there’s often no quick, “magic” result.
The second sum is “up to $500 million in grants to U.S. based manufacturers to produce other components needed for electric vehicles, such as electric motors.” In an electric car, people often think about the battery tech, forgetting that motor tech needs to advance–but it too takes difficult science and engineering. $500 million won’t go very far if spread too thinly between competing companies with different core technology for next-gen motors. Particularly if there’s an unseemly squabble over who gets the cash, as there has been with the other funding programs.
Lastly there’s “up to $400 million to demonstrate and evaluate Plug-In Hybrids and other electric infrastructure concepts–like truck stop charging stations, electric rail, and training for technicians to build and repair electric vehicles.” This last does make excellent sense–any spending to improve the core tech would be useless without developing a supporting infrastructure for the resulting cars.
Compare all this to the $1 billion that Japanese firms are spending to augment their own already-advanced battery tech. This is exactly why Obama is doing this–despite projects like the Aptera and Chevy Volt (pictured)–because the U.S. is perceptibly lagging behind global alternative power R&D. It’s something even Obama’s commented on: “Germany is leading the world in solar power…Spain generates almost 30% of its power by harnessing the wind, while we manage less than one percent and Japan is producing the batteries that currently power American hybrid cars.”
But what’s Obama’s stated goal for this $2.4 billion? One million of the cars on the road by 2015. That’s over five years away. From a quick search, it looks like in 2007 16 million new cars and trucks were sold: So imagine 16 million are sold every year up to 2015, and 200,000 of those each year are electric cars. That would amount to just 1.25% of the new fleet each year. And that won’t hange the environmental impact of road transportation one jot.