Driving the TESLA, protecting national security? Electric Vehicle market launches in Washington

Dipka Bhambhani Contributor
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Millions of Americans in the military put on their uniforms each day to defend our national security.

On Thursday, little did I realize, I too was defending our national security — by driving around a brand-new TESLA Roadster.

The all-electric Roadster is almost all-American. The battery pack is made in Palo Alto, California, but the insides — the individual lithium-ion cells — are made in Japan and Korea.*

The Roadster accelerates from zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds, drives 245 miles on a single charge, and according to Diarmuid O’Connell, TESLA’s vice president of business development. “That’s a game changer in the alternative [vehicle] space,” and “a matter of national security.”

The car quietly hugs the road and moves smoothly, no jerks, with any movement of the tiny steering wheel or brake. And, it’s not as heavy going at lower speeds, about 10 miles per hour, like a Lamborghini or an Aston Martin, according to one TESLA sales executive.

It takes almost three hours to charge the battery using the standard 120 or 240 voltage outlet; and, it’s clean and simple under the hood, only a few major parts, including a battery pack, a power electronics module that converts power and controls the braking system, and an electric motor.

Before O’Connell joined TESLA, he served two years under former Secretary of State Colin Powell as chief of staff for political military affairs.

“Most of my personal insights about what needed to be done in this sector came to me from the uniformed military. I think that if we’re responsible about our national security strategy, we really need to get solid about our energy security strategy,” he said.

O’Connell said the U.S. is “too subject to the whims of autocratic rulers,” and shifting from gasoline to electric could save lives.

“In our parents’ generation, America was still the surplus producer of oil. It was exporting to the world. In our generation, we hit the tipping point and we’re well past the tipping point right now where we’re reliant on foreign oil,” he said.

“There’s no slack in that market anymore. Whether we like it or not, we’re subject to every shift in the supply/demand curve and that puts us in a very bad situation. In a peacetime situation, this costs us money, in a war time situation, this costs us blood.”

Knowing that I might be helping national security and enjoying one of the most exhilarating drives of my life made my afternoon. I realized in this economy, it certainly might be easier to pay for this car in blood.

I’ve heard if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford this car. But maybe you can. The two-seater starts at about $100,000.

O’Connell hopes to get that number down to about $30,000 with more widespread adoption of EVs, about 2015.

TESLA opened its Washington showroom on Feb. 10 and another showroom in Milan, Italy, on Feb. 11.

O’Connell hopes TESLA will produce as many as 200,000 vehicles — not just Roadsters — by 2015, just in time to make a dent in President Obama’s tall order to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Japan and Korea currently supply the insides for the lithium-ion battery packs, but O’Connell hopes that U.S. manufacturers will step in once the demand grows.**

Most of the technology is developed in U.S. Department of Energy labs, he said.

But, “if the domestic manufacturers of electric vehicles start to pursue EVs in mass scale, that demand will drive a supply of U.S. manufactured batteries. That will complete the U.S. picture on the sell side,” O’Connell said.

President Obama reiterated his desire to see more electric vehicles during his State of the Union address last month. And the Energy Department released a roadmap this week to get there.

The agency will spend $5 billion in stimulus money to help manufacturers build batteries, motors and charging stations. It certainly helps the president that in 2009 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raised fuel-economy standards for both cars and light trucks.

In his fiscal 2012 budget, the president said he wants to expand this initiative so that as many as 30 communities could receive grants of up to $10 million for EV deployment.

Conventional hybrid electric vehicles that have been on the U.S. market for more than a decade. Those represent nearly 3 percent of total light-duty vehicles. But the Energy Department says to reach the goal of 1 million, EVs will need to average just under 1.7 percent of sales through 2015 (assuming sales of 12 million light-duty vehicles per year).

Manufacturers are kicking into gear. GM has announced plans to build 15,000 Chevy Volts in 2011 and 45,000 in 2012. That goal may increase to 120,000 in 2012, the company has said.

The president has also initiated a $7,500 tax credit for plug-in electric and alternative-fuel vehicles, and he wants consumers to receive their credit at the time of purchase.

Some say that what the U.S. could displace in greenhouse gases from vehicles operating on gasoline, it could absorb as emissions from the coal plants that would generate the electricity needed to power these one million plus vehicles.

In a 2007 study, the Electric Power Research Institute and the National Resources Defense Council concluded that greenhouse-gas emissions could be reduced by widespread adoption of EVs, but whether or not it’s a significant reduction of GHGs depends on where the electricity comes from and assumes no new GHG-emitting baseload generation is added.

David Hawkins, director of NRDC’s Climate Center said, “Our results show that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles recharged from low- and non-emitting electricity sources can decrease the carbon footprint in the nation’s transportation sector,” he added.

Branko Terzic, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Energy Solutions, says the message is in the nomenclature. The cars “could,” not necessarily “would,” reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

“If you switch the electric vehicles from gasoline to electric power, you still produce CO2 because 70 percent of electricity is made from natural gas and coal,” Terzic said.

Terzic is also the regulatory-policy leader for energy and resources at Deloitte. He and many experts say there are too many unknowns to determine whether and how widespread adoption of PHEVs would improve the environment.

Will those electric cars be charged at night when renewables could power the grid or will people charge during times of peak power?

“You’d have to know how electricity would be used by electric vehicles,” Terzic said. “If it’s used at night, you probably wouldn’t need new power plants.”

If people start charging their cars at all hours of the day, there could be a need for more generation, more baseload generation like coal and natural gas, he said. “That’s really the question,” he said.

Then, there is the issue of infrastructure. Terzic, a former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, had more questions that had yet to be answered.

“If you’re in an apartment building, who’s responsible for giving you the plug? You or the building owner?” Terzic said. “And why should the building owner do it? How much is it going cost you? Does the electric company own the plug? “Who’s going to put in the charging stations? Who will own them, how will they work? Will gas stations install them?”

“The problem there is you can fill up your [gasoline] tank in three minutes, but the charging takes hours,” Terzic said. “There are all kinds of unanswered questions that still have to be looked at,” he said.

Many experts seem to agree that the infusion of new electric vehicles will not disrupt the country’s ability to meet electricity demand. But, adding vehicles to the grid would have some impact.

“We definitely would see some added demand,” said Revis James, director of EPRI’s Energy Assessment Center. “A more important concern would be when during the day the recharging if vehicles occurs – depending on how that happens, peak demand could be affected.”

O’Connell said he’s not worried about the outstanding questions. Infrastructure will be developed and customers will charge their vehicles at night during off-peak hours.

“For every electric vehicle you’re putting on the road, you’re taking off a more polluting internal combustion engine vehicle,” he said. “The trend on the national grid level is to introduce more cleaner technology and retire old dirty technology. Electric vehicles fit in perfectly with this trend.”

*Correction: The article originally misstated the origin of the battery back.

**Correction: The article originally misstated that Japan and Korea manufacture the battery back as opposed to the insides of the battery pack