Electric Cars (and Ben Stiller) at the Clinton Global Initiative

Posted on September 25, 2009. Filed under: News, Questions | Tags: , , , , , |

Tesla Roadster electric car by Renault-Nissan

Tesla Roadster electric car by Renault-Nissan

Green Inc reported on the “lively panel discussion on the future of clean energy infrastructure” at the Clinton Global Initiative Summit in New York yesterday. The panel featured the chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, the CEO of Cisco, John Chambers and the head of GE, Jeffrey Immelt. It also drew celebrities like the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway, and even recognizable ones like Ben Stiller.

A key number thrown around was 1.5 billion. This is the number of vehicles that are expected to be in use in the near future as developing countries catch up with their developed counterparts. The number today is 700 million, so the projected increase is significant. Ghosn, of Renault-Nissan, quoted these numbers and said that his company believes, “the time is now” for electric cars. According to the BBC, Renault-Nissan is investing 4 billion euros (~$5.9billion) into electric vehicles hoping to become the world leader.

However, industry experts say this is a less than certain bet which could make or break the company. The future of electric vehicles is by no means universally agreed upon. According to Takeshi Uchiyamada, head of R&D and environmental technologies, at Toyota:

“The electric vehicle has become a fever and everyone is talking about it…but in the 1990s, lots of vehicle manufacturers launched electric vehicles, and Toyota did too…and if the question is if there have been any major technological developments since then, the answer is no.”

To this point, Ghosn argues that there certainly have been advances in battery technology in the past 10 years- and that current models suit the needs of 95% of the world’s drivers who travel less than 100 miles per day.

Another crucial question for electric cars discussed at the Clinton Global Initiative Summit is the challenge of infrastructure development and the source of electricity. The goal of reducing vehicular carbon emissions is lost if the electricity that powers electric cars is generated by coal.

When looking for a large scale low carbon technology capable of powering 1.5 billion vehicles, it is hard to avoid considering the nuclear option. According to the BBC, even in Germany, a world leader for renewable technologies:

“Without massive investment, it is inconceivable that renewable power sources can emerge fast enough to replace Germany’s nuclear power plants”

GE’s Immelt supports the development of nuclear power in the US as well, but broadly argues that instead of picking winners, the government should put a price on carbon and let the market decide which technology is most efficient. He believes that infrastructure must be sustainable, replicable and scalable to succeed.

This debate leaves many questions unanswered: What is the future of electric cars? What will the release of the Chevy Volt late next year mean for the car industry? Will the development of infrastructure prove to be as big of a barrier as it seems? Is Renault-Nissan’s gamble a good one?

Maybe a piece of the answer is that cars should not be considered as a necessary part of the equation for everyone. May electric cars can be a good alternative to fossil fuel powered models, but what if we need less of them? Minimizing the reliance on cars, and planning development based on sustainable community design and high speed public transportation systems will reduce that 1.5 billion.

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