U.S. Electric Car Revolution to Go Forward, With or Without Congress

New federal legislation encouraging mass adoption of electric vehicles will only help 'to catalyze the change that is coming,' says Hertz executive

Nissan leaf electric car

A Nissan Leaf electric car, part of Hertz's car-sharing program/Credit: Leticia

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WASHINGTON—Jack Hidary certainly isn’t short on moxie.

Instead of waiting for a congressional committee to advance electric vehicle legislation, the New York entrepreneur stood in room 366 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building where those discussions usually unfold and announced his bold initiative designed to prod motorists from the pump to the plug.

And, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the always-gracious New Mexico Democrat who lords over those hearings as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, welcomed Hidary with kind words and encouragement.

Hidary and dozens of other electric vehicle disciples gathered Wednesday to launch Hertz’s green car-sharing program in the nation’s capital. The blueprint, introduced last December in New York City, gives drivers access to an array of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Hertz has mapped out a plan to replicate the service in urban centers nationwide and overseas.

“This is not a dog and pony show,” Hidary told SolveClimate News in an interview before kicking off a brief program that included remarks from industry representatives as well as alternative energy aficionados Bingaman, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who drives a Tesla, and Jim Woolsey, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“What we’re saying is let’s make electric vehicles a reality and accessible to the people. This makes it real.”

Legislation to promote electric vehicles would be helpful, the 42-year-old catalyst explained, but the marketplace can’t wait around for Congress. Envelope-pushers, he added, have to lead by designing new business models that emphasize mobility, job creation, energy storage and plug-ins’ evolving relationship with the emerging smart grid.

“The way I see it, 2011 is the year of the electric car,” said Hidary, a finance and technology guru now focused on clean energy. “This is a new world we’re about to enter into.”

Congress Creeping Forward

Bingaman is trying to do his part to encourage solidarity and shepherd the Senate toward that novel universe. President Obama’s goal of becoming the first country to put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 resonates with him.

“Electrification of the transportation sector is one of the great hopes we have for this country,” Bingaman said Wednesday, pointing to Hertz as a “good example of that happening.”

Just a week ago, his energy committee had a hearing to discuss the “Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2011” (S. 948). The bipartisan bill dangles hundreds of millions of dollars as bait in infrastructure-switching incentives via the Department of Energy.

Even as Congress seems locked in a state of pre-presidential election paralysis, insiders say that a bill boosting electric vehicle deployment has a chance of galvanizing legislators who otherwise seem allergic to the idea of crafting logical energy and environment measures.

What’s in the Bill

Sens. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican — both members of the Environment and Public Works Committee — are the authors of the bill Bingaman’s committee is discussing.

A similar bill they co-authored last year with North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who is now retired, received the thumbs-up from the energy committee before sputtering out in the Senate.

One highlight of this year’s 87-page version is DOE grants of as much as $250 million for communities across the country that can show they are savvy enough with local policy and private sector involvement to create a charging infrastructure that supports at least 400,000 electric vehicles.

It also designates $235 million through Advanced Research Projects Agency: Energy — DOE’s version of a similar type of program in the Department of Defense — for research and development  to fine-tune drive components, increase the durability and energy storage capacity of batteries and improve the efficiency of charging stations.

In addition, the bill allocates $25 million to aid the federal government in replacing its conventional cars with fleets of electric vehicles. As well, private companies with an urge to electrify could compete for grants as large as $20 million.

The bill also allots $100 million to allow the DOE to design an overarching electrification plan and another $150 million to ensure that a diverse workforce that includes electricians, engineers, code inspectors, car dealers, mechanics and first responders can access appropriate training.

Merkley and Alexander estimate that putting just 700,000 plug-in cars on the road would save 10 million barrels of oil per year. Petroleum savings could leap as high as a billion barrels annually if 100 million electric vehicles are navigating the streets by 2030. That could curb heat-trapping gas emissions by as much as 300 million tons, according to calculations in the measure.

Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican, introduced a companion bill in the House May 3, a week before Merkley and Alexander rolled out their version. Biggert is a senior member of the House Science and Technology Committee.

The “Electric Drive Vehicle Deployment Act of 2011” (H.R. 1685) has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). Thus far, four Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors: Reps. Theodore Deutch of Florida, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney of California.

Not Waiting for Congress

Hertz’s kick-off in Washington came just a day after the General Services Administration announced its first foray into the electric vehicle market.

GSA is adding 116 plug-ins to increase the fuel efficiency of a conventional federal fleet that numbers near 600,000. While the government’s purchase of 100 Chevrolet Volts and other electric vehicles might seem like a mere drop in the proverbial bucket, those at the Hertz gathering declared it a strong symbol of the Obama administration’s insistence on weaning the country off foreign oil.

“My only question is, ‘How can we get more electric vehicles quickly?'” Hertz senior vice president Richard Broome asked his audience in 366 Dirksen.

Conversations with a persistent Hidary convinced Hertz authorities, who spend $5 billion purchasing cars annually and own close to 400,000 cars, that corporate America should be a beacon of early adoption on the electrification front.

Ideally, Hertz envisions a car-sharing model that allows travelers to move seamlessly throughout the greater Washington region. That means the 93-year-old company and its partners will be offering drivers a full range of electric vehicles at rental outlets and easily accessible charging stations at local airports and hotels.

“We need public-private partnerships,” Broome told SolveClimate News in an interview about building out an overall infrastructure that eventually reaches from the home to the interstate system. “We have a lot of momentum. We just have to keep the momentum coming.”

To Broome, federal legislation encouraging an electric vehicle revolution would be icing on the cake.

“The fact that Congress takes an interest at all is what is so helpful to us,” he said. “It’s symbolism of our government showing an interest. Legislation helps to catalyze the change that is coming.”

Oil and Al Capone

Once the speakers had their say, event attendees left the air conditioning of Dirksen to troop off to nearby Union Station — in temperatures pushing 90 degrees — to test drive electric vehicles at Hertz’s rental car area.

They likely made the short walk ruminating about the Al Capone/oil analogy spun by Woolsey a few minutes earlier. Per usual, the country’s top spy during the Clinton administration regaled his audience with the most colorful and memorable comparison of the day.

“It is a disaster from the point of view of climate change and it is a disaster from the point of view of our health,” Woolsey said in spelling out how America’s dependence on oil has wreaked havoc with society just as Capone’s gangster antics did in the 1920s.

In reviewing America’s transportation fuel choices, ethanol, methanol and natural gas have their niches, Woolsey said, but electricity is the most sensible economical choice.

“Two cents a mile is an awful lot better than 20 cents a mile,” he said. “Two cents a mile is revolutionary.”

Now, he continued, it’s a matter of taking plug-ins mainstream by commercializing and institutionalizing the technology.

“This is how we can all start treating oil like the Al Capone it is,” Woolsey concluded. “We can deal oil the body blow it needs to be dealt.”

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Jack Hidary explains Hertz’s green car-sharing progam, video courtesy of PlanetForward: