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Congress Ponders How to Push Electric Vehicles

A new bill could promote electric vehicles in five regions nationally by awarding federal funds to assist in the roll-out of plug-in cars. Not everyone thinks this is the best way to develop the technology



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Lawmakers have floated a proposal to fast-track electric cars, but some in the clean-car field are worried that the wheels may fall off.

Last week, House and Senate legislators released bipartisan plans to speed up the deployment of electric vehicles. In each plan, the centerpiece was a "targeted deployment" approach: Rather than offer the same incentives nationwide, the government would award federal funds to the regions that come up with the best blueprints for rolling out tens of thousands of plug-in cars.

In H.R. 5442, proposed by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), the Energy Department has to select five regional plans, with each one eligible to get up to $800 million.

S. 3442, from Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), would select five to 15 communities, and winners could receive up to $250 million.

The bills also offer a raft of other ideas, including tax incentives for cars and car chargers, bond authority to raise money for charging infrastructure, and requiring utilities to come up with their own estimates of how many plug-in vehicles could hit roads.

The bills are similar in another way, too: Their approach strikes some important players in the electric-car world as incomplete.

"If you create a scenario where consumers believe that a technology is only available in five markets, then it will be very difficult for that technology to succeed nationwide," said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group representing major car manufacturers from the United States and abroad.

Where can federal support drive the market?
"The idea of developing a technology that would only be available in certain markets would amount to the kiss of death for that technology," he said.

Territo said the alliance agrees with the overall thrust of the deployment bills but holds that different technologies -- from biofuels to fuel cells and electrics -- suit different needs, so they should be available in all markets where Americans can choose.

Today, Virginia, Florida and Washington state rank among the top five states for hybrid-car sales, and if someone had tried to forecast the top five states years ago, those three states might not have made the cut, he said.

Neither the House nor the Senate bill has a co-sponsor from Michigan.

The Electric Drive Transportation Association, whose members make everything from chargers to batteries to cars, said the House bill "identifies critical areas where federal support can advance adoption of plug-in vehicles."

"We think there are others to be considered, but the bill is an important starting point in the vital conversation about the future of transportation," the statement continued.

The debate is, in large part, about what strategy Washington should choose to promote electric vehicles -- and whether it has to choose at all. Some argue for an organized program at the national level, offering deep tax incentives to buy electric cars, setting up standards for charging stations, and doing regional deployments as the bills propose.

The 'ecosystem' approach to consumers
Last year, a group called the Electrification Coalition pitched a more targeted plan: focusing $150 billion on a handful of metropolitan regions, with the aim of getting 120 million plug-in vehicles out by 2030. The coalition, which also has members up and down the supply chain, had a hand in crafting the Senate and House bills.

The rationale for its plan: The electric car works best in a system that's built for it. The coalition said pouring money into a few "electrification ecosystems" would force the regions to work out every last detail with utilities, regulators, consumers and carmakers. The regions would be petri dishes for understanding when people charge and at what cost, and which technologies work the best.

Robbie Diamond, president of the coalition, rejected the notion that the "ecosystem" approach would have any effect on Americans in markets outside the region.

He said the numbers forecast in the House and Senate bills -- about 700,000 vehicles in the first five to six years -- are more than what the manufacturers are currently planning to build, so the bills will encourage them to raise production, which will spill over to all markets.

As Congress faces soaring deficits and a public mood that has soured on spending, though, the Senate and House proposals may represent a choice.

Sam Ori, the Electrification Coalition's director of policy, told E&ETV that targeting specific regions might have attracted lawmakers because it doesn't involve a national infrastructure rollout.

"I think part of the idea behind [this] is this idea of fiscal responsibility that we're not going to deploy this infrastructure right off the bat nationwide, that we're going to focus on a limited number of areas, learn how necessary it is and how it's used, and then sort of go from there," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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