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Monday, Nov. 17, 2008 10:11 pm

Barack’s batteries

Obama’s plan to have one million hybrid and electric cars on the road by 2015

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Whenever Barack Obama opens his mouth, a five-point program comes forth. The clean car arena is no exception. Obama has an ambitious 10-year, $150 billion program that he says will save more oil than the U.S. currently imports from both the Middle East and Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Now that he’s been elected, Obama has emphasized fuel efficiency as the key to any bailout of the auto industry.

The centerpiece is bold indeed: Obama wants to put a million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015. Essentially, a plug-in is one of today’s hybrids on steroids, with a bigger battery pack and the ability to be charged from a wall outlet. With 30 to 40 miles of electric range, people could commute to and from work without ever calling on the gasoline engine (which would nonetheless be there for long trips).

Getting to a million plug-ins is no walk in the park, and the main reason is the lithium-ion battery packs that make them work. Lithium-ion batteries are in your computer and other electronics, but the much bigger packs for cars are a challenge (especially since lithium-ion has fire issues). Breakneck research is underway, but it may be a while until battery packs are produced in the millions needed to fulfill Obama’s pledge.

The Chevrolet Volt (which uses a gas engine as a generator to power an electric motor) will have lithium-ion batteries, and supply problems are one reason the automaker is being cautious about the car’s target volumes.

Some provisions of Obama’s plan are already enacted, including a tax credit for plug-in cars that passed as part of the bailout package, and significant improvements in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automakers (a 35-mpg standard by 2020 was in the energy bill that passed last year).

Some environmentalists like Obama’s plan. Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, points out that getting plug-ins to market involves more than ramping up low sales volume. “A consumer credit alone can’t get the vehicle into the market.” she said. “Lithium-ion batteries still need further development to ensure performance, and nickel-metal-hydrids are not plausible for a plug-in with substantial range. So I do think a big quick investment in batteries is warranted. Obama’s 1 million by 2015 is, of course, extremely ambitious.”

By the way, John McCain said he liked plug-in hybrids, too. In addition to calling for 45 new nuclear plants by 2030, McCain called for a $300 million battery challenge “for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

The bottom line is that the public won’t get plug-in cars in any volume unless the batteries can be made to work. Let’s be optimistic. Consider that anti-lock brakes took a long time to develop and cost $1,000 initially. Now they’re just $100 and saving lives every day.

Jim Motavalli is the former editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Auto Section.

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