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Corporate Leaders Can Help Fuel Clean Energy Automotive Initiatives

Leading by example is more than a cliche. It can help fuel clean energy initiatives, literally. The companies and the chief executives on the cutting edge of technology and sustainability are setting the tone by employing alternatively fueled vehicles and ones that are said to pollute less than those using combustion engines.

Hybrid vehicles are now a mainstay in the marketplace, or those that run on both gasoline and electricity. The all-electric vehicle is also making inroads but is slow to accelerate. Hurdles exist, namely the relatively high cost of such options along with the fledgling infrastructure to support them. Public-private partnerships, however, are seeking to sidestep such barriers. Are they worth the money and will they help reduce pollution levels?

If electric vehicles were “widespread,” greenhouse gas levels from light-duty vehicles would fall by 64 percent. That’s according to a report by the utility sector’s research arm EPRI and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which also say that the final results depend on which fuel is used to charge the cars.

“The potential reductions here are significant,” says David Hawkins, director of the resource council’s climate programs. “Widespread transportation electrification should be a key part of US strategy to combat climate change and ensure a clean energy future.”

More than 20 models are now on the market, including the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Tesla will come with a $35,000 electric vehicle late next year. It’s current one is more than $70,000. Billions are getting invested in these technologies.

Coal-based power plants account for about a third of all manmade carbon emissions. The transportation sector accounts for about slightly less than that. So if broader adoption of electric vehicles could cut into those heat-trapping releases, should the government get more involved? The Obama administration says that the advanced battery market could hit $50 billion in 2020.

Right now, electric vehicle sales are a small part of the market, at 3 percent. That’s why the federal government is offering up to a $7,500 tax credit for electric car purchases. Critics on the right say that if the cars were that good, businesses would buy them outright. Subsidizing them only tilts the scales, they add.

Those on the left say that the credit needs to be even more, up to $12,000. That would give those vehicles roughly the same lifetime costs as a comparable conventional or a traditional hybrid vehicle.

Increasing the sales of all-electric cars and trucks would reduce petroleum imports and would arguably have an affect on total emissions. But increasing that marketshare via federal subsidies to car makers and tax rebates to drivers would jack up the annual budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that all such policies will cost about $7.5 billion through 2019.

Interestingly, General Motors is developing an electric car that it says can operate for 200 miles before it would need to be re-energized, which would exceed the range of most electric vehicles by 100 miles. It centers on improving battery technologies, where the public and private sectors have joined to double the energy density of lithium-ion batteries that has the practical effect of reducing their cost by half while increasing the driving range.

“Our primary goal is to build the world’s best vehicles,” says Mike Demsky, senior manager for  the supply management team at GM, during a recent conference sponsored Edison Energy.

But there are some potholes along the route. As for all-electric vehicles, they are more expensive than traditional cars and trucks, as well as the hybrids. It’s also that the relative driving range makes long trips impractical especially because there are a lack of “fueling” stations where they can recharge.

Then, of course, there is the question of how electric cars would be charged. If coal remains the dominant electric fuel in many areas of the country, the overall benefits to electric cars would be, at best, nominal, says an earlier study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“It is counterproductive to promote electric vehicles in regions where electricity is primarily produced from lignite, coal or even heavy oil combustion,” the study says.

All this lends credence to the push behind well-conceived government programs to promote renewables as well as alternatively-fueled vehicles. As both the automotive and energy technologies expand and get more established, they will fuel more enthusiasm, especially among the corporate community that wants to set an example for their communities and their customers.


Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.

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