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Friday, October 23, 2009

Top US general says Electric vehicles essential to national security

The nation needs to muster the same economic might that brought about the explosion in personal computing, the Internet and cellular phones, and apply it to electric vehicle technology to help wean the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil, Gen. Wesley Clark said this afternoon at "The Business of Plugging In" conference.

Freeing the U.S. of its petroleum-dependence is crucial to national security interests, said Clark, former supreme allied commander for NATO. He noted that the past few wars -- from the first Persian Gulf War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- had securing U.S. access to oil among their motivations. Climate change could also put extra burdens on national security, as well, if it brings about storm-related catastrophes that require military assistance.

"It's absolutely dead center of the bull's eye of national security," said Clark, who was the keynote speaker at the three-day event at MotorCity Casino-Hotel. "It's a tragedy. It doesn't have to be that way, but it is."

Much of the oil imported -- about 12 million barrels a day -- goes to fueling our nation's 240 million vehicles with the U.S. spending $300 billion to $500 billion each year to pay for it, he added.

All that could be money better spend invested here to create jobs and stimulate the economy, he added.

"We need the next big thing for America. It could be in electric vehicle technology," Clark said.

At a morning session on readying cities for electric vehicles, speakers said moving electric vehicles into the mainstream will be crucial for reducing carbon emissions, but their adoption will largely depend on making the transition easy for consumers who want to plug in to their homes or workplaces.

"You can't have a meaningful effect with just a couple of cars," said Britta Gross, director of global energy systems at General Motors Co., who moderated the session.

Simplicity is key to making this new technology understandable to consumers who may be reluctant to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle when they don't know where to charge, how long it will take and whether they have the necessary equipment at home, said Mike Ligett, director of emerging technologies at Progress Energy Corporation, a utility in Raleigh, N.C.

He cautioned industry and government against being overly ambitious in the early years because it could end up confusing customers and stalling sales.

"We do not need a smart grid to make this work," Ligett said.

Rather, a customer needs to know a 110-volt outlet will be available when the electric vehicle arrives home from the dealer.

At the same time, not all homes have external 110-volt outlets, and installations will have to be made. Cutting down the time it takes to get residences and workplaces ready is also needed, said Enid Joffe, co-owner of Clean Fuel Connection, an Arcadia, Calif.-based installer of charging stations.

With existing systems, it could take anywhere from 30 to 45 days to install a charging station, she said.

"No one wants to wait 30 to 45 days to install their infrastructure" after they buy a new electric car, she said. "Part of what we need to do as an industry is we really need to reinvent this process."

Patrick Davis, program manger for vehicle technologies at U.S. Department of Energy, said he sees plug-in electric hybrids -- which run on electricity for a limited distance before switching to the gas engine -- as a transitional technology to gradually phase in pure electric vehicles, which use no gas.

Eventually, as the infrastructure is built out and charging stations become readily available, customers warm to the pure electric vehicles, which will go finite ranges on a single charge but have no carbon tail pipe emissions.

"Right now, we have range anxiety," he said.

In an earlier morning session on the electrification of vehicle, Peter Darbee, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. in California, said demand for plug-in electric vehicles is likely to surpass industry estimates, and utilities should brace for a sharp increase in electricity use once these vehicles hit the showrooms.

He said he believes plug-in electric vehicles will be incredibly popular in Northern California where hybrid vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, have had strong market penetration.

An uptick in new electric vehicles could tax the grid in new ways, especially since a plug-in electric vehicle -- drawing electricity from a 220-volt outlet -- is like adding the equivalent of another home to the system. Add on top of that a hot day when drivers come home, turn on the lights and air conditioning and then plug in the vehicle, and "you would create a peak load on top of the peak load," Darbee said.

"What happens if three to five vehicles show up in one neighborhood," he said. "You're going to overwhelm the circuits."

To prepare, utilities must work with the automakers in building out the infrastructure, as well as consumers to encourage electric vehicle owners to plug in at off-peak demands.

Similarly, dynamic pricing will also be critical to evening out electricity use by giving customers a financial incentive to plug in at night when demand is low and prices are cheaper, he said.

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