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Archive for the ‘electric cars’ Category

photo: BrightSource Energy

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Some good news on the environmental front for a change: Global investment in green technology in the first quarter of the year spiked 52 percent compared to the previous quarter, to $2.57 billion. That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm.

The increase represents a 13 percent jump over the first quarter of 2010, and indicates that investors’ appetite for renewable energy, electric cars, and other green technologies continues to rebound from the recession.

But the numbers aren’t exactly good news for entrepreneurs toiling away in their garages on the next new thing. The first quarter results show that investors are focusing on existing portfolios rather than financing a lot of new startups. In fact, 93 percent of that $2.57 billion represented so-called follow-on investments.

“In the first few months of the new year there have been a rash of large later-stage deals which have propelled 1Q11 to the second highest quarter ever for clean tech VC investment,” Sheeraz Haji, the Cleantech Group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see some big private equity firms entering the space.”

So who got the money?

Solar companies were the big winners, taking in $641 million in 26 deals, according to the Cleantech Group. About a third of that went to a single startup, BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., solar thermal power plant builder. And venture capitalists seem to have a renewed appetite for cutting-edge thin-film photovoltaic technology, an area they poured a couple of billion dollars into back during the green tech boom. One such startup, MiaSolé, scored $106 million in the first quarter.

Electric cars also proved popular among investors as the new year got underway. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a super sleek plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, took in $150 million. At the other end of the electric spectrum, Coda Automotive, another SoCal startup, took in $76 million for its middle-of-the-road four-door.

Biofuels are back as well, taking in $148 million. The largest share, $75 million, went to a California company called Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is developing a process to turn municipal waste into ethanol.

North America still accounts for the lion’s share of investment — 85 percent in the first quarter, a 43 percent rise from the same period last year. And Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did the most deals — nine.

But in a sign that corporate America is increasingly seeing green tech as a good bet, GE Energy Financial Services took third place for the number of deals done.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When it comes to the future of electric cars, as with other green technologies, the wild card is China.

The People’s Republic has invested billions in renewable energy and has become a solar superpower in photovoltaic manufacturing. It’s also poised to one day potentially blow away the competition in wind turbine production. China’s new five-year plan calls for dramatic increases in energy efficiency and designates electric cars as a strategic industry. (The government has set a goal of five million electric cars on the roads by 2020.)

The country already is the world’s largest automotive market — General Motors now sells more cars there than in the United States — and its support of electric car and battery makers has attracted investors like Warren Buffett, who has put his money into EV manufacturer BYD.

So far, domestic demand in China for electric cars is tiny, even compared to the nascent U.S. market. According to a report from GTM Research — yes, that report has been a gold mine of data for posts this week — there are but 295 electric cars on the road in China. That’s not a typo. Not that the U.S. is exactly racing down the electric highway, as there are only 2,000 electrics in service here, the report says.

But other numbers in the report foreshadow China’s potential to dominate the electric car market.

The Chinese government’s $17 billion investment in the electric car industry so far outstrips the $5 billion the U.S. government has put into EVs. China has 120 domestic automakers compared to 13 in the U.S. And most telling, some 33,200 people work in the Chinese lithium-ion battery industry, compared to 1,100 here. By 2020, GTM Research estimates that new car sales will reach 27.5 million annually in China compared to 17 million in the U.S.

“How aggressively China will mandate EVs is one of the more interesting considerations in looking at the global market potential, as this nation now has the means to affect not only global production, but also the global demand for electric vehicles,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

One of the biggest knocks against electric cars, other than their current range, is the rather steep upfront cost due to the price of the battery.

Of course, you’re essentially pre-paying much of your fuel costs for the life of the car. But that’s a hard message to get across to a potential buyer contemplating forking over $41,000 for a Chevrolet Volt or $33,000 for a Nissan Leaf before state and federal incentives.

However, rising gasoline prices — now topping $4 a gallon in the San Francisco Bay Area — may finally drive the message home that electric cars, despite the expense of the first generation mass production models, are a hedge against an uncertain fuel future. (Not to mention environmental catastrophe.)

In a new report on electric cars and the smart grid, GTM Research includes a handy chart listing average gasoline prices (as of Jan. 2011) in the United States and Europe, along with the price of electricity and the savings from trading in a gas-guzzler for an electron-sipper.

In the U.S., drivers of battery-powered rides can save the equivalent of $2.05 a gallon, assuming gas prices of $3.25 a gallon and electricity rates of 12 cents a kilowatt-hour. Of course, gas and power prices in the U.S. vary dramatically from state to state. In California, both are among the highest in the land. But so are subsidies for solar panels, which can be used to charge your car, a further hedge against peak oil.

But in Europe the savings are particularly dramatic. In nuclear-powered France, the GTM snapshot shows electricity rates at 19 cents a kilowatt-hour while petro prices are at $7.61. Switching to an electric car would save the equivalent of $5.71 a gallon.

Electricity rates in Spain, which has been on a renewable energy building boom in recent years, are just seven cents a kilowatt-hour. Going electric would take the equivalent of $5.20 off the $5.90 price of a gallon of gasoline.

“The German government recently announced an objective of having one million EVs on that country’s roads by 2020,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author, who cited a German utility industry study that concluded renewable energy could power 50 million electric cars by 2020.

In Copenhagen, where petro prices were $6.89 as of Jan. 21, a Danish utility plans to provide free power to electric car drivers for two to three years, according to the report.

“In terms of the consumer experience and encouraging wider adoption, not having to pay for fuel appears to be a very savvy strategy,” wrote Leeds.

Just don’t expect to see Huge Chavez trading in the presidential limo for a Leaf: Gas prices in oil-rich Venezuela are about six cents a gallon.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

As the first mass-market electric cars start to, slowly, hit the streets, the big question is whether battery-powered vehicles are the future or a fad.

The answer won’t be known for years but a new report from GTM Research offers some interesting insights into where the electric road might lead. The report, “The Networked EV: The Convergence of Smart Grids and Electric Vehicles,” predicts there will be 3.8 million electric cars on the road worldwide by 2016, with about 1.5 million in the United States, 1.5 million in Europe and 760,000 in Asia.

“It is the hope of this industry that just as cellular phones and laptops before them, EVs will begin as luxury products but will eventually become widely affordable,” wrote David J. Leeds, the report’s author.

Leeds notes that it took a decade and three generations of the Toyota Prius hybrid to capture five percent of the California automotive market. He expects it’ll take a third generation of electric cars, likely to be introduced around 2018-2020, for carbon-free driving to break out of Berkeley, Portland, and other early adopter cities.

It’ll come as no shock that Leeds estimates that 20 percent of electric cars will be sold in California, which currently accounts for 11 percent of total auto sales in the U.S. New York will follow with nine percent of electric car sales with Florida, Texas, and Illinois rounding out the top five.

Predicting such numbers is a guessing game, of course, and electric cars sales will be determined by a multitude of factors, including vehicle cost, advancements in battery technology, gasoline prices, government subsidies, and the fickle tastes of car buyers.

The early adopters of electric cars that will like drive the industry aren’t so much all those Prius owners but corporate accountants looking to keep a lid on the cost of company fleets of cars and trucks.

“Electric vehicles make great sense for fleets due to their highly predictable routes, as well as the fact that these groups tend to excel at logistical operations,” wrote Leeds. “More than any other sources, commercial and government fleet purchases have the power to accelerate the adoption curve of this market.”

He noted that fleets account for 15 percent of miles driven in the U.S. and that many of those vehicles travel fewer than 100 miles a day, the range of many current electric vehicles, and can take advantage of centralized parking and charging stations as well as lower electricity rates negotiated by big corporations.

General Electric, which will buy 25,000 electric vehicles over the next four years, is aggressively promoting EVs among its corporate customers.

“We can’t forgot the importance of scale,” Luis Ramirez, chief executive of GE Industrial Solution, told me earlier this month when he came to San Francisco to promote electric vehicles and GE’s various services for them. “An average delivery truck makes 10 deliveries a day in a city like San Francisco. So when you think of electric vehicles, that creates a whole new blueprint that’s more efficient and uses less energy.”

Clarence Nunn, chief executive of GE Fleet Services, noted that a big cost of operating delivery trucks is the fuel wasted when idling in congested urban areas. Noise ordinances also can restrict delivery times for fossil-fueled powered vehicles. That’s not a problem, of course, for electrics.

The blogosphere had been buzzing over reports of low sales so far of the electric Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrid electric Chevrolet Volt. That, however, may be more of a production than a demand problem. Leeds noted that nearly 250,000 potential Volt buyers had registered on GM’s site.

“We’d like to buy more than they can build,” said Ramirez of the Volt and Leaf.

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about PlugShare, a new iPhone app that lets people share their household outlets and electric car charging stations with EV drivers:

First there was music sharing and then car sharing. Now get ready for plug sharing.

Xatori, a Silicon Valley software start-up, aims to create a network of electric car enthusiasts who make their household power outlets and home chargers available for drivers who need to top off their battery or who find themselves out of range of the few public-charging stations currently available.

On Monday, Xatori released PlugShare, a free iPhone app that lets drivers and outlet owners locate and offer electricity.

“We want to break down that barrier in people’s minds about where it’s acceptable to charge,” said Armen Petrosian, Xatori’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “We think the infrastructure to charge is everywhere.”

Drivers can punch in their destination to see the availability of shared outlets as well as public charging stations along their route.

People who want to share their electricity indicate what type of outlet or charger they have, how to gain access and their preferred method of contact. Given that most outlets are located in locked garages or otherwise behind closed doors, Xatori expects plug sharers will ask drivers to schedule a time to charge by calling or sending a text message.

“I think a big positive of using the app is that you get to connect with other E.V. owners,” said Mr. Petrosian.

In other words, think of PlugShare as a combination of FaceBook and Foursquare, the location-based service, for electric car owners and their supporters.

“People who don’t own an electric car can be part of the electric vehicle revolution,” said Forrest North, Xatori’s chief executive and the founder of Mission Motors, a San Francisco start-up developing an electric motorcycle.

But how much is it going to cost to take part in this revolution if the revolutionaries are giving away their power?

Not much, according to Xatori’s founders, who believe that most people will share their standard 110-volt household outlets. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, they say it’ll cost on average about 15 cents an hour to charge an electric car. (Under a variable rate structure, that cost could go up if a household is a particularly heavy electricity user.)

“This is more like a backup network, like A.A.A.,” said Mr. Petrosian, who says he has a battery-powered Nissan Leaf on order. “Most of the time you’ll drive on energy from your own house. If you miscalculate, you can rely on the community.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

First Chicago gets Rahm Emanuel, now electric cars.

Well, at least an electric car infrastructure. In a move that indicates electric cars won’t just be a phenomenon of Greater Portlandia, utility Exelon and the city will roll out 280 charging stations across Chicagoland by year’s end. Two stations will even be solar-powered.

It’s part of a smart grid demonstration project, partially funded by the federal government, to get a jump-start on the potential impact on the electric system if Chicagoans start buying battery-powered vehicles in big numbers.

Windy, snow-swept Chicago doesn’t exactly pop to the top of the list as an EV epicenter. But former Mayor Richard M. Daley made greening the second city a priority, and according to a spokesperson for Exelon — which owns Chicago utility ComEd — Illinois ranks in the top 10 when it comes to hybrid car ownership.

“ComEd is preparing now for what may be a large influx of PHEVs in the market and managing its impact on the grid,” Kerry Kelly-Guiliano, the Exelon spokesperson, said in an email, referring to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. “And they are putting in place the charging infrastructure to demonstrate that Chicago is plug-in ready.”

The locations for the charging stations have yet to be determined, but Kelly-Guiliano said they would most likely be deployed at places like shopping malls, Chicago’s two airports, and rest stops along the Illinois Tollway in the city.

Chicago follows another unlikely hot spot for electric cars, the petro capital of Houston. Late last year, utility NRG Energy announced plans to build a $10 million electric charging network in a 25-mile radius surrounding downtown Houston.

Initially, Chicago’s electric charging network will be used by a fleet of electric and hybrid cars maintained by ComEd.

Now we just want to see Mayor Emanuel behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When President Obama in his State of the Union address called for 1 million electric cars to be on the road by 2015, skeptics scoffed. But in a report [PDF] released Tuesday, the Department of Energy basically said no worries. We’ve already arrived at our destination.

That optimism comes from automakers’ existing projections of how many electric cars they expect to produce over the next five years.

“The production capacity of EV models announced to enter the U.S. market through 2015 should be sufficient to achieve the goal of one million EVs by 2015,” the report states, noting that 1.6 million hybrids like the Toyota Prius have been sold over the past six years.

If the estimates bear out, 1.2 million electric cars will hit the highways by 2015. That’s about 10 percent of current annual automotive sales. But those rosy numbers includes some big figures from startup companies like Fisker Automotive that have yet to roll a single production vehicle off the assembly line.

According to the Energy Department, Fisker expects to sell 195,000 of its forthcoming Nina plug-in hybrid by 2015, along with 36,000 Karma high-end sports sedans. And Think, the Norwegian electric carmaker, says it’ll sell 57,000 of its urban runabout in the United States within four years. The Chevrolet Volt, which you can buy now if you live in certain cities, would account for nearly half the projected sales of electric cars in 2015.

On the other hand, those estimates don’t count a number of automakers that say they will or are likely to introduce electric cars in the coming years, depending on how the market shakes out. Among them: Chrysler, China’s BYD, Coda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

Which raises a question: Did the president set his sights too low if it’ll be so easy to get a million EVs on the road by 2015?

It’s always hard to forecast the market for an expensive new technology like the electric car, but the short answer is, probably.

The Energy Department cites studies showing that if battery production goes from 10,000 to 100,000 units a year, battery costs will decline 30 percent to 40 percent. And the report notes that electric vehicles’ overall lower operating costs appeal to corporate fleet purchasers that buy in bulk.

The report made clear that the government has a role to play in promoting the retirement of the internal combustion engine, from handing out research and development cash to funding a nationwide network of electric charging stations.

One suggestion is sure to be popular with potential electric car buyers and could stimulate sales: The Obama administration has proposed converting the $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs into a rebate payable upon purchase at the dealer, rather than making you wait until tax time to gain its benefit.

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photo: eVgo

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Houston, we have an opportunity.

The nation’s oil capital is making a bid to become the first city to deploy an electric car infrastructure. NRG Energy, a power provider, announced Thursday that it will finance the installation of personal and public charging stations throughout an auto-dependent metropolis synonymous with sprawl.

“The service station of the future is your garage,” David Crane, NRG’s chief executive, said on a conference call Thursday morning. “It’s our strongly held view that if given a choice, Americans want to make a difference. They want to make a difference with respect to the environment and with respect to national security.”

Called eVgo, the $10 million network will feature 220-240 volt Level 2 chargers for Houstonians’ garages that will charge electric cars like the Nissan Leaf overnight.

“Freedom Stations” and “Convenience Stations” will be dispersed around the city and offer Level 2 charging as well as fast-charging that lets drivers top off their batteries in about 10 minutes to get a 30-mile boost.

NRG, working with electric infrastructure company AeroVironment and General Electric, plans to install 50 Freedom Stations by the middle of next year, building them at shopping centers and along freeways in a 25-mile radius from downtown Houston.

Charging posts will be installed at Walgreens drugstores, at Best Buy outlets, and at H-E-B, a chain of Texas supermarkets.

“Our goal is that anywhere in Harris County, Texas, you’ll be within five miles of a charger,” said Crane, who added that NRG’s plan was to eventually deploy around 100 Level 2 and fast-charging stations.

EVgo will offer three-year contracts with monthly subscription packages ranging from $49 to $89. For $49, drivers get a home charger. The more expensive subscriptions offer home chargers and unlimited access to the entire charging network.

Crane said Houston’s suburban sprawl and maze of highways actually makes the city more suitable for an electric car infrastructure than greener-than-thou West Coast cities.

“The advantage a city like Houston has over places like San Francisco and New York City is that the great majority of people have garages,” he noted. “And people understand energy down here.”

He said the goal is to sign up 1,000 eVgo customers during the project’s first year.

Four electricity providers have joined the eVgo coalition, including TXU Energy and Reliant Energy (which is owned by NRG).

While NRG operates fossil fuel-fired power plants, it has also made investments in renewable energy, including taking a $300 million equity stake in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar project, now under construction in the Southern California Desert. NRG also has a joint venture with solar power plant developer eSolar to build solar farms in the desert Southwest.

Still, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News asked Crane, “Why are you starting this in Houston? Are you taunting the oil industry?”

Crane chuckled and then said, “Let me state for the record we’re not taunting the oil industry.”

But making a buck at Big Oil’s expense is another matter.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The landscape of Silicon Valley is littered with technology pioneers who were a little too ahead of their time and failed to cash in, either because the market wasn’t ready or because competitors swooped in and commercialized their breakthroughs.

As the first mass-market electric cars hit showrooms, the question is whether Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, has now been early to the party twice.

Back in the late 1990s, Ford acquired a majority share of Think, invested $100 million, and produced a two-seater urban runabout called the City. The car was sold in Norway and was a familiar sight on San Francisco Bay Area streets at the turn of the century, where it was leased to residents as part of a pilot project that allowed drivers to charge up at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. (Among those who drove a Think: Google co-founder Sergey Brin.)

We all know the rest of the story: Low oil prices and California’s abandonment of its zero-emission mandate killed off the electric car. Ford ditched Think, which eventually filed for bankruptcy.

In 2006, a Norwegian professor and entrepreneur named Jan-Olaf Willums and a group of investors revived Think to manufacture a next-generation battery-powered City. When I visited Think in Oslo in 2007, Willums promoted a vision of the electric car as not an isolated hunk of metal (or plastic, in the City’s case) but as an internet-enabled transportation service that interacted with the power grid — and you — through your mobile phone.

“We want to sell mobility,” Willums told me. “We don’t want to sell a thing called the Think.”

Production of the new City began in late 2008, and there are now some 2,500 of the highway-ready cars on the road in Norway and elsewhere in Europe.

But as Think prepares to enter the United States market — the company plans to assemble the City in Indiana — it’s searching for space in a parking lot crowded with competitors which have embraced, to varying degrees, Willums’ vision.

When I test-drove the Chevrolet Volt in May, General Motors executives proudly showed how you could check on the car’s battery charger and communicate with the vehicle through your iPhone or Blackberry. The Nissan guy riding shotgun in the electric Leaf I drove in July did the same.

So how does Think compete against those deep-pocketed competitors offering four-and-five-seat sedans?

I recently talked to Barry Engle, Think’s newest chief executive, about the company’s strategy now that the electric auto age has at last arrived. (Like his immediate predecessor, Richard Canny, Engle was a longtime Ford executive.)

“This is a company that for many years was this lone voice in the wilderness trying to convince people that they had a better idea,” says Engle. “I don’t know if the world was quite ready for what we have. But wow, a lot has changed here over the past year or so.”

Engle stresses that Think is not out to compete with GM and Nissan in the U.S., but will focus on a niche market — urbanites who want a small, easily maneuverable electric car.

“We don’t delude ourselves that we are a full-fledged manufacturer with a full line of products,” he says. “We’re uniquely positioned in the marketplace as few have expressed interest in what we do well, a city car.”

Such cars are popular in Europe’s densely packed cities, where electric cars are exempt from high registration and congestion charges. Then there’s a huge potential market in Asia’s megacities.

And if American city-dwellers start to downsize their rides and go electric at the same time, then Think will have arrived right on time.

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photo: Ford

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Bummed that you don’t live in one of the select cities that will be the first to get the electric Nissan Leaf or the Chevrolet Volt next month? Or you do live in one of those early-adopter municipalities and want an electric ride but don’t like either car?

Well, if you’re willing to wait another year, the electric Ford Focus will be rolling into town. Twenty towns, to be exact. Ford on Monday announced that in late 2011, a battery-powered version of its compact car will be sold in — drum roll, please — Atlanta, Austin, and Boston as well as Houston, Chicago, and New York.

Denver, Detroit, and Orlando will get the Focus along with Raleigh and Durham, N.C. and Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. Out West, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson are on the list.

Then there are the usual suspects: San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

“Markets were chosen based on several criteria, including commuting patterns, existing hybrid purchase trends, utility company collaboration and local government commitment to electrification,” Ford said in a statement.

“Ford wants to build on this enthusiasm by making our first all electric passenger vehicle available in as many pilot markets as possible,” Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, said in a statement.

“This is the first step in rolling out the Focus Electric. As the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure and demand for the Focus Electric grows, Ford will continue to evaluate additional markets and consider making this vehicle available in more cities across the country.”

The electric version of its existing Focus will be powered by a lithium ion battery that will give the car an estimated range of 100 miles. That’s the same range that Nissan is advertising for the Leaf. The Chevrolet Volt will travel about 40 miles on a charge before a small gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity.

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