Will electric cars enter the mainstream?

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Of all the clean technologies out there, few generate as much buzz as electric cars. If only they generated more sales.

My story for Guardian Sustainable Business this week looks at electric cars, why they have been so slow to enter the mainstream and what the prospects are for quicker uptake of electric vehicles.

Here’s how it begins:

Pardon my metaphor, but is the tank half-empty or half-full when it comes to electric cars?

The bad news: start-up electric-car makers Aptera, Better Place, Coda and Fisker are out of business, or close to it. Of the 14.4m cars sold last year in the US, only 52,835 – one out of every 270 cars sold – were plug-in hybrids, like the Chevy Volt, or pure electric cars like the Nissan Leaf. Even with generous government subsidies, including a $7,500 (£5,000) tax credit for electric-car buyers, there is no hope of getting a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, a goal set by president Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address.

And yet, virtually all the big auto-makers are charging ahead, with GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW expanding their electrified offerings. So far this year, sales of electric cars are up by 123% over 2012, the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) reports. Influential publications such as Consumer Reports and Motor Trend rave about electric cars – in particular the new Tesla S. And all indications are that electric car owners are pleased with their vehicles.

“There is no buyer’s remorse,” says Arun Baskota, owner of a pure electric car and, more importantly, the president of eVgo, a startup company owned by utility NRG Energy that is building out electric-car charging infrastucture.

To get a sense of where the market is going, I sat down with Baskota after EDTA’s annual convention in Washington, and spoke by phone with Siddiq Khan, the co-author of a new report called Plug-In Electric Vehicles: Challenges and Opportunities, from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEE). Both are optimistic about the future for electric cars, but they caution that mass adoption will take longer than most people (including, evidently, the president) expected.

The story goes on to argues, as I have before [See my blogpost, If electric cars are the answer, what's the question?] the the electric-car industry has yet to give car buyers a compelling reason to go electric. And the economics remain a challenge. With a very few exceptions–notably, the all-electric Nissan Leaf–the fuel savings that come from driving an electric vehicle are not big enough to pay back the higher initial costs of the vehicle.

Of course, predicting the future is very hard. Battery costs could drop, and battery performance could increase; in fact, they almost surely will. But until they do, electric cars will remain a niche product.

You can read the rest of the story here.

If electric cars are the answer, what’s the question?

An eVgo charging station

An eVgo charging station

Like many environmentalists, I’d love to see lots of people driving electric cars. If  broadly adopted, electric cars will go some way towards limiting air pollution, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and undermining the power of oil oligarchs in the Arab world and elsewhere. Electric cars produce what economists call “positive externalities,” that is, consequences that benefit people other than their owners.

But what problem to do they solve for electric-car owners? That question has been on my mind since my recent visit to Israel, when I drove a Better Place car and experienced, first-hand, one of the obvious drawbacks of electric vehicles: They don’t go very far without refueling. [See my January blogpost, Better Place is alive but not well.] This is a problem not just for Better Place, but for other sellers of pure electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S.

Today, I took a closer look at Better Place in a story for the YaleEnvironment360 website. Here’s how it begins:

If you want to sell electric cars, Israel looks like a great place to start. It’s a small country, with most people clustered around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Gasoline costs more than $7.50 a gallon, and oil revenues help support Israel’s Arab foes. So it’s easy to understand why Shai Agassi, an entrepreneur who was born in Israel and made a fortune in Silicon Valley, chose to launch his Better Place electric-car company in Israel, while preparing plans to expand in Europe, Australia, Japan, China, and the U.S.

What’s harder to understand is why things have gone so badly. Better Place, which staked out its position in the electric car market with an innovative battery-swapping technology, has sold only about 750 cars in Israel, while piling up losses of more than $500 million. Agassi was forced out of Better Place in October, his successor as CEO quit in January, and the company has put its global rollout on hold. Better Place needs to raise more money this year, and that won’t be easy, insiders say.

Start-ups often stumble, of course, but Better Place’s woes raise questions that matter to anyone who cares about electric cars and their future in a low-carbon economy. Has Better Place sputtered because of its own mistakes, or are the company’s difficulties a sign of the broader challenges facing electric cars?

As part of my reporting (much of which didn’t make its way into the story) I spoke to executives at General Motors, Nissan, the charging network eVgo and others, to see how electric cars are faring here in the U.S. Last year, Americans bought 52,000 all-electric cars or plug-in hybrids–vehicles, that is, designed to run primarily on electricity, like the Leaf,  the Chevy Volt and the Tesla. That’s about 0.35% of U.S. car sales, which topped 14.5 million in 2012. By comparison, the best-selling passenger car, the Toyota Camry, sold 405,000 units, without, incidentally, the benefit of the billions of dollars in government loans, grants and tax credits that have flowed to the electric car industry. EVs have attracted lots of attention but they have been slow to penetrate the mainstream. [click to continue...]

NRG Energy: Hoping to score big with solar

The view from the NRG suite at Redskins Park

The Washington Redskins played with enough energy to send Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys into overtime, but by the time the ‘Skins fell to their sixth consecutive loss, my host at Redskins Park  — David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy — had left. Actually, he exited before halftime . . . to attend another NFC East showdown, the Giants-Eagles prime time game in New Jersey.

No, Crane is not a football fanatic. But the affable 52-year-old CEO is fanatic about promoting solar power, which is why he’s been spending time lately with NFL owners. NRG installed solar panels last summer at Redskins Park [See my blogpost,  An NFL rivalry...over solar], and he would like the company, which is based in Princeton, N.J.,  to deliver solar energy to the stadiums where the Giants and Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots play.

Why? To show people–particularly the influential, well-to-do types who attend NFL games–that solar energy makes sense, today.

“This is about demonstrating to the public the potential of solar,” David told me, as Dallas jumped to an early lead.  and we made our way up to the front of the suite. “I just want to make sure I see at least one play before I go,” he said, ruefully.

David Crane

Most utility company CEOs are, frankly, dull. Not Crane. He’s straightforward and occasionally outspoken, friendly and open, and ready to think in new ways about an industry that hasn’t changed all that much since Edison’s day. He is passionate about the climate crisis–he was active in USCAP, the failed big biz-big green coalition that lobbied for federal regulation of greenhouse gases, and he pushed hard to build a low-carbon nuclear plant in Texas until the risks grew too high post-Fukushima. He’s a friend of the Clintons, which is one reason why NRG made a $1 million contribution through the Clinton Global Initiative to deliver solar power to Haiti.

Now he is pushing hard for rooftop solar, smart meters and electric cars–a set of technologies that has the potential to transform the way utilities operate. [click to continue...]

NRG’s David Crane: straight talk about energy

Washington may be stuck in neutral–or worse–when it comes to climate policy, but NRG Energy and its chief executive, David Crane, are aggressively pushing clean energy.

NRG Energy is investing in nuclear power, solar energy (photovoltaic and utility-scale solar thermal) and electric cars. It’s powering the Empire State Building. It’s even helping to finance off-the-grid solar power in Haiti.

“Washington is not filled with people who are going to lead,” Crane says. So it’s up to business to show the way.

I interviewed David Crane at the State of Green Business 2011 forum in Chicago. He’s always a pleasure to talk to because he’s brimming with ideas and tells it like it is. Based in Princeton, N.J., NRG is a $9 billion a year independent power producer that operates coal, nuclear, natural gas, wind and solar plants.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

On nuclear power: “Nuclear is the ultimate green solution, if what we are solving for is climate change,” Crane said. NRG wants to build a new 2,700 MW nuclear faciity in Bay City, Texas, next to an existing plant. It would supply enough energy to power 2 million Texas homes. The project requires federal loan guarantees and progress through the regulatory system has been slow.

Despite strong support for nuclear from President Obama, Energy Secy Chu and Republicans in Congress, the U.S. is likely to build no more than two new nuclear power plants in this decade, “which is not exactly a nuclear renaissance,” Crane said. [click to continue...]