LEAN TECH: Infant Technology

By Published On: January 9, 2009

As the California Energy Commission prepares a final funding plan to promote low-carbon transportation, the agency’s staff is viewing the electric vehicle as “infant stage technology,” according to Tim Olson, Energy Commission emerging fuels and technology manager. What a difference five years and new program funding makes. Roll back the clock to 2003 when California Air Resources Board member Matthew McKinnon proclaimed: “The battery electric vehicle is proven technology.” That was right before the Air Board shelved its so-called zero emissions vehicle mandate. After more than a decade of state subsidies for electric vehicles themselves, plus a network of public charging stations--complete with maps and signage on freeways and streets directing drivers to them--the Air Board gave up on its 1990 electric vehicle mandate. The Southern California signs lead to lonely lots with only a rare customer. The agency put its focus into hydrogen vehicles. At the time, the Air Board said it envisioned 2,500 hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles between 2009 and 2001, 25,000 between 2012 and 2014, and 50,000 between 2015 and 2017. The Air Board dumped the electric vehicle standard under the pressure of a lawsuit filed by the auto companies and the realization that the vehicles, with their limited driving range, did not fit the California lifestyle. “Mandates alone cannot overcome the laws of physics,” said Air Board chair Alan Lloyd shortly before the 2003 vote in Sacramento, referring to the limited capacity of electric vehicle batteries to store energy. Today, on the well-oiled hydrocarbon highway, both the electric and hydrogen vehicle again appear only as elusive technologies on the horizon, just as they fade into the rear view mirror of the past. The Energy Commission’s funding plan does not foresee either technology playing a significant role in cutting greenhouse gases until well after the year 2020.

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