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McCains Electric Car Battery Prize May Be A Bit Short Sighted

mccain car battery.jpgRepublicans have favored “Big Oil” when it comes to energy policies and recently created quite a bit of criticism when they voted vehemently against taxing big oil’s windfall profit, even if it meant axing tax credits and subsidies to the cleantech industry. Now, Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nomination, has moved away slightly from Bush’s vision on energy policies.

John McCain has announced $300 million prize money to the inventor of an efficient car battery to power hybrid and electric vehicles which includes plans to offer tax credits to consumers (up to $5,000), to make hybrids and electric cars an attractive buying option. The funds required for this plan would translate to roughly $1 in tax for every man, woman and children in the country, which according to Mc Cain is “a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency”.

However, McCain did not elaborate on the impact of this initiative or his approach and plans to lower the US fiscal deficit. In addition, the parameters for judging the efficiency of batteries, as defined by McCain are vague and obscure. The prize money would be awarded to a battery system that delivers required power at 30% of the current costs and has” the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric” This approach has a fundamental flaw because the current market for hybrids is not explicitly defined and the performance of a hybrid is open to a wide array of interpretations.

Hybrid or electric vehicle performance is generally measured by the power delivered by them, their range of operation and their capacity to vary power according to demand. There is currently no universally accepted benchmark to gauge the performance of hybrids and electric vehicles. Additionally this policy completely ignores alternative power technologies such as ultracapcitors, which hold immense potential to power hybrid vehicles. As Gerband Ceder, professor of materials science and engineering at MIT says, “It’s hard to measure without a benchmark,” and promptly dismisses McCain’s new plans as a “political stunt”. Secondly, only zero emission cars would qualify for maximum tax credits of $5000. Hence, only fuel cell powered cars would qualify as zero emission vehicles and entail maximum tax credit. However, these are currently very expensive and well out of the reach of the masses.

McCain in his zeal to promote electric and hybrid vehicles fails to see the other end of the spectrum on this issue in my opinion. Assuming a mass adoption of such cars, there would be a tremendous demand for electricity to charge up such vehicles. McCain’s advisor Doug Holtz-Eakin suggests that such cars could be plugged in at night when energy demand is the lowest. He also suggested that the energy required to power up these vehicles could come from clean-coal and nuclear power plants. This approach certainly addresses the issue. However, a comprehensive analysis of the clean power generation and utilization for hybrids and electric vehicles is imperative before their adoption. The lack of such a roadmap would essentially mean that we are trading tail pipe emissions form cars to more wastes from coal/nuclear plants.

Although beset with a number of challenges as highlighted above, McCain’s new initiative is laudable as it steps away (even if only slightly!) from his “oil for energy” philosophy.  $300 million represents a substantial increase when compared to U.S. Department of Energy(DOE) previous expenditure on battery technology. In 2008, (DOE) devoted nearly $50 million to research and development for vehicle-related energy storage. Critics say that instead of being given away as prize money this amount should be directly invested in research and development activities

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