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Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Electric Cars

12:05 PM, Apr 3, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Electric cars are expensive, inefficient, and unpopular. Take GM’s electric car, for instance, the Chevrolet Volt. It costs $41,000 (though consumers can get a $7,500 tax credit from the federal government for buying it), sold less than 600 in January and February combined (608 in March, according to Chevrolet), and runs solely on a battery for the first 40 miles before the gas-powered battery charger kicks in.

Steven Chu

But not everyone’s so dour on the prospect that this car might be the wave of the future. “I heard…that GM initially was thinking of [selling] 5,000 cars a year,” Energy secretary Steven Chu said Friday morning at a breakfast for reporters “They’re reevaluating that. They think the demand is much, much higher.” Chu must have been referring to revised GM numbers, since the company’s initial production estimates were 60,000 when development first began on the Volt in 2007. Even as late as last October, GM set expectations at selling 10,000 to 15,000 units in 2011 and predicted that number would reach 60,000 for 2012.

Even if sales do end up reaching one of these changing goals, it seems that most of orders for Volts aren't from your average Joe; they're being bought for corporate or government fleets. GE announced it will purchase 12,000 Volts, but it's perhaps no coincidence that the company whose CEO is President Obama's favorite would be assisting the administration in achieving its goal of getting a million electric vehicles on the road.

So what’s the value of encouraging these cars to market if the American consumer just doesn’t want to buy electric right now? Chu argues that the rapid technological research in rechargeable car batteries, funded by the federal government, is making more efficient, less expensive, and unsubsidized electric cars a reality in the near future. “When you can buy a car for $25,000 without subsidy and it can really go three or four hundred miles, then I would say that there would be a significant market penetration,” Chu said. “One hundred miles at $30,000, it’s different. But the trajectory is very rapidly going in this direction.”

Chu also noted that current electric vehicle technology only allows these cars to travel 100 miles at a time (that's the capacity of Nissan's Leaf electric car) before having to be recharged. But Chu’s still optimistic.

“It’s now within grasp,” Chu said, referring specifically to advances in car battery technology. “That you can get a battery where the business plans are one-third of the cost of today’s batteries, where you can get ranges now that would allow cars instead of 100 miles on a single charge, go 300 or more miles on the same charge,” Chu said. “The 300-mile one is completely within grasp, thinking that within five years the automobile companies will be testing those batteries.”

Chu was asked about congressional Republicans’ forthcoming proposed budget cuts to energy research and development. Such cuts, he said, would be devastating to reaching the goal of having marketable electric cars.

“You turn off the spigot for this research and [these] ideas, you will be saying, alright, United States, you’re not in the race anymore,” Chu said. “And that would be tragic. The rest of the world recognizes that there’s a race to these things, that this is within grasp. It’s not a pipe dream 30 years from today or 20 years from today. It’s in the next decade.”

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