President Obama with American flat in background.
The hard part of being a President, they say, is dealing with the unexpected.

The Speech the President Should Make Tonight

$100M Drive Star program could launch massive electric vehicle conversion initiative.

By Felix Kramer

This is the speech that Flex Kramer, the founder of CalCars.org and the leading advocate for both plug-in hybrids and now electric vehicle conversions, wishes President Obama would make to the nation Tuesday, June 15, 2010. Also see Kramer's introduction at President's 2nd Message: We Can Cut Oil Use in Half by 2020

TODAY we are under attack. Admiral Thad Allen describes a Gulf under siege. Oil is holding us all hostage, economically and physically. We are defending our land and sea, our jobs and communities, against a relentless enemy that's already hit four states hard -- so far. We don't know what's to come -- or if, how, or when we can win. If terrorists had poisoned 40% of our wetlands and 25% of our fisheries, we wouldn't ask, "How much will it cost to fight back?" We'd put tens of thousands of soldiers at risk and spend any amount to take out that enemy.

I am not willing to be the latest in a succession of Presidents telling you we're going to end our addiction to oil. Finally, it's time to begin. The good news? At last we have ways to get far within a few years, not over decades! And it will cost much less than you think. More about that in a moment.

We can't continue ever-riskier experiments to get oil from remote locations. Even on land, getting oil from tar sands depletes water and other resources and doubles oil's carbon footprint. And oil only seems cheap. Its impacts are increasingly unaffordable. And it's going to get more expensive at the pump and at every step once it's extracted from the ground. In the U.S., and around the world, giant transport ships, aging pipelines and sprawling refineries will continue to fail -- and remain in the cross-hairs of terrorists -- as long as they operate.

The only way to guarantee our victory -- the most realistic solution -- is to reduce national and world demand for petroleum. That's surely a conservative strategy in the fullest sense of the word: protecting everything we value from change we can't control. So tonight I'm announcing "Drive Star." At last we will begin our recovery from fossil fuel addiction.

It's a 21st-century equivalent of what we did in 1942. When our country was attacked at Pearl Harbor, no one believed we could build 30,000 planes and tanks in just one year. Well, America's auto industry delivered over 100,000. And no one asked what it would cost. We just had to do it. That helped us become the world's greatest industrial power. If we can again succeed like that, in a decade, we'll look back and know that we got a great deal: safer, healthier, better lives, an economy no longer held hostage to petro-dictatorships and blindered, monopolistic companies, and a significant response to climate change.

Since our cars and trucks use almost two-thirds of the oil we buy, the quickest way to cut oil use is to free transportation from its grip. Over time, we can conserve by reducing the miles we drive. But it will take decades to shift most freight from trucks to trains, design walkable communities, shorten our commutes, and build better mass transit and high-speed rail networks.

Meanwhile, we all still need to drive all the time. It helps that the auto industry will be building more efficient new vehicles. And the first plug-in cars mass-produced in the USA in a century will go on sale this fall. That means we'll be powering some miles with increasingly renewable electricity that isn't made from imported oil. But even these new plug-ins will show up too slowly to have a big impact on our oil consumption for two decades.

That's too long to wait to improve energy security, protect our economy, and address climate change. Fortunately, if we just open our eyes, the practical answer is right in front of us. It's under the hoods of the 250 million vehicles we drive today. Using existing technology, we can convert many of them into plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

We've already decided we're going to fix already-built houses, offices and factories that waste energy. We're about to enact the "Home Star" and "Building Star" programs -- putting people to work on "Cash for Caulkers" retrofits that will make buildings more comfortable and cut owners' fuel costs.

Since vehicles are also part of what we've built, with bipartisan support, we will enact a similar program: "Drive Star." "Cash for Conversions" will start by fixing many of our 100 million trucks, vans, and buses. They now gulp down one third of the oil we use. About half of those big gas-guzzlers stay on the road a surprisingly long time: 15 to 35 years. That's as long as many buildings, so they're also worth a makeover. And these retrofits will also pay off, for their owners, their communities, and our nation. We already upgrade our computers. We can upgrade vehicles too.

Pioneering companies now have designs to turn gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles into all-electrics or plug-in hybrids, depending on how they're built and the range their drivers need,. The U.S. can lead in a new, profitable, global business opportunity. Retrofit technologies are already good enough to install in large vehicles. As batteries get cheaper and smaller, and motors get light enough to fit inside wheels, we'll be able to upgrade smaller cars. We won't need new power plants, since we have enough off-peak electricity to recharge as many retrofits as we can build. And magically, as more electricity comes from lower-carbon fuel sources, our cars will get cleaner as they get older!

While we're fixing vehicles, we can also equip them with low-cost real-time MPG indicators that show us how to save money and still get to places quickly. We can add carbon filters to diesel trucks to get rid of black carbon -- soot, which is another global health and climate problem. Our effort will inspire other startups to accelerate development of liquid fuels from algae and agricultural waste products. These zero-carbon biofuels plus lower-carbon natural gas will fuel plug-in hybrids when they drive beyond their electric commuting range. And to reach our goal of cutting oil use 50%, we'll also need one other step: end the use of 15% of our oil for heating.

When they're mass-produced, conversions will cost under $10-$15,000. That's a lot for anyone with an old car to pay up front. Retrofitters can partner with energy service companies to finance those costs, backed by federal loan guarantees. Payback will come because an electric mile is up to five times cheaper than a petroleum mile. So these retrofits will cost less to drive right away, benefitting public, military, and private fleets, and individual drivers.

We'll add targeted incentives to jump-start this successor to the $4,500 "Cash for Clunkers" program. Right now, buyers of new plug-in cars get up to $7,500 in tax credits. For the first five million vehicles, we'll match that for retrofit gas-guzzlers that displace an equivalent amount of oil and are in shape to last 10 more years. As high-volume production brings down their price, we can taper down the incentive over a second five million.

$100 billion on retrofit loan guarantees and incentives is a lot of money. Before we go all in, we'll start with a $100 million program that entrepreneurs call "proof of concept." But let's realize: defending our nation is never cheap. We've spent ten times that hundred billion on wars since 9/11. A plan to convert vehicles has to look beyond the immediate payback to take into account the real costs and damages we'll avert.

Every day, we just hand over a billion dollars to foreign oil suppliers. Drive Star will turn out to be a bargain. For less than we pay for three months of foreign oil, we will catalyze quick retrofits of over 50 million vehicles.

After our one-year test, in summer 2011, we'll be ready to create a powerful new U.S. conversion industry. In communities everywhere, tens of thousands of Americans will have important, well-paid jobs fixing vehicles in commercial garages -- and in boarded-up auto plants. Meanwhile, carmakers and dealers that sell high-efficiency and plug-in cars will, for the first time, get a new revenue stream from upgrading vehicles they've already sold.

Drive Star will prove that converting vehicles is profitable. A few startups already make that case, and we expect big news from some of them later this year. We'll enlist more companies to join this new age of automotive innovation.

We Americans love to race. Since Charles Lindbergh won a $25,000 prize for his first transatlantic flight, we've seen again and again how competition sparks innovation. We've just sponsored a $4 billion "Race to the Top "for our schools. And ongoing public and private contests in space and science show that creative inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs can take giant leaps.

"Drive Star" starts with a modest but ambitious $100 million challenge: Design a way to convert a popular vehicle. Make it affordable, safe, drivable, eligible for certification and warranty, and installable in high volumes. We'll pre-fund your prototypes. We're in a hurry, so deliver your test vehicles in six months. Our judges will come from the Departments of Energy and Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, groups like the Society of Automotive Engineers, the X Prize Foundation, Cleantech Open, the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association, and carmakers and suppliers. We'll recruit mentors to validate your business plans, identify suppliers, and connect partners.

Early next year, we'll convene a kickoff summit in Michigan for conversion companies, car and component makers, lenders, fleet owners, and drivers to begin a national rollout of the best solutions.

Drive Star is our opportunity to lead the world in a new direction, as U.S. companies export and license our solutions and work with suppliers, manufacturers and installers to fix vehicles everywhere. Because oil is a global fuel, our solution must spread internationally or we'll just transfer the fossil fuel risks to the air, water and economies at locations from which they will still threaten everything that lives on our planet.

Every generation is called to step forward. One of our biggest challenges is to clean up our oil mess -- and we can meet that challenge. We have cleaner, cheaper, safer ways to drive everywhere. With Drive Star, we have the motivation, the technology, and the resources to cut our oil use in half in ten years . Yes, we can take the first step!

Times Article Viewed: 8091
Published: 14-Jun-2010


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