Opinion: Obama Can Solve the Energy Crisis With Electric Vehicles

There is a way to solve our energy crisis with strong leadership. Either candidate could have done it, and President-elect Barack Obama should. If our rich and prosperous country’s leader defines the strategy, implements the tactics and requires results, he could free the U.S. of dependence on foreign oil, clean the atmosphere, and lower the cost of fuel and enrich our national technology — all at the same time.

The critical steps are:

  • 1. Evolve autos from gasoline/diesel to hybrid to plug-in hybrid.
  • 2. Develop a battery that can run 200 miles on a 10-minute recharge.
  • 3. Strengthen America’s electrical distribution system.
  • 4. Recharge cars in garages, public places and service stations.
  • 5. Build nuclear power plants to enlarge the supply of electricity.
  • 6. Use all alternate sources of energy, i.e. wind, natural gas, solar.

America is a representative democracy, with many forces on our President-elect right now. This is also a time when we need the firm hand of a strong leader, one who can take command and is not dependent on consensus to mobilize our nation to generate abundant energy. The key is to define a new fuel and vehicle system to serve affluent civilizations during the 21st century without being dependent on exhaustible or foreign resources.

The fundamental strategy is to evolve to an electric transportation system and an electricity-based refueling infrastructure.

The internal combustion engine that powers our cars and trucks is 100 years old. Our organization of gasoline stations is effective and well established, with more than 160,000 service stations throughout the U.S. on interstate highways and in our cities. A swift transition to electric cars and the ability to conveniently recharge them is the best energy policy for the future.

The first step is to require or convince auto manufacturers to quickly evolve from gasoline and diesel engines to hybrid electric and then to fully electric vehicles within 10 years.

The second step is to enable our vehicles to be recharged in our homes, parking lots, parking garages and service stations. The electrical distribution system in the U.S. can be expanded to provide capacity to gasoline stations, evolving them into recharging stations. Parking spaces in the public and private environment can incorporate plug-in charging systems as well.

The major challenge is to develop a battery system that is small, light and able to be recharged in 10 minutes for a 200-mile capacity, even though most drivers refuel often and do not require that much range. This technology is not available today, but American ingenuity, entrepreneurship and invention can make it possible. We are accustomed to recharging devices and equipment, from cell phones to electric drills. The problem is that the battery technologies used in our laptops, iPods and cameras are not adequate for automobiles. The technical challenge is clear and can be solved.

Here are two historic examples to suggest that this task can be done. Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project, to build an atomic bomb based on the theories of a dozen or so scientists. In just a few years, creative determined people defined a complex new technology and built an entire industry to isolate the materials for the first few atomic bombs.

The second is exemplified by John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961, when he said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” The complex technology development was successful because of determined leadership and an unambiguous target: Win the race with Russia to land a man on the moon.

Authorizing and prioritizing the development of a suitable battery and recharging system for the 21st century would be a far easier task than the two examples above. From there, a business model for electric vehicle charging could emerge. If the consumer charges a battery at night at home, using off-peak electricity, the cost could be about $2 for a full charge. If the car-owner recharges during the day in a parking lot or garage over a multi-hour period, the cost could be about $4. If the car-owner wants an on-the-road high-speed charge or a battery replacement, the cost could be about $15 for 200 miles. The high-speed charge of 40-kilowatt-hours will require 1,000-2,000 amperes at 110-220 volts, a significant upgrade to our electrical system.

Obama also needs to require the highest standards of safety. Today’s scientists and engineers understand how to expand Thomas Edison’s electrical distribution system and can do it, rendering the grid safe and less vulnerable to blackouts.

American leadership has changed transportation before. In 1956, President Eisenhower and Congress had the wisdom to launch the Interstate Highway System, which replaced the hodgepodge of state highways. Virtually 100 percent of the construction and maintenance costs were funded through fuel taxes collected by states and the federal government, and tolls collected on toll roads and bridges.

President-elect Obama can change our driving patterns more dramatically than the Interstate Highway System did. The time has come to expand the electrical distribution system to power our vehicles and provide an equally elegant system to service stations, parking lots, homes and shopping centers.

Robert J. Potter is a technology and business consultant serving clients internationally from his office in the Dallas Metroplex.

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