A Massachusetts Institute of Technology report, issued yesterday, concludes that creating a nationwide infrastructure for electric vehicles appears to be a bigger challenge than producing affordable batteries to power the cars.

The report, authored by professors Ernest Moniz and John Deutch, summarizes an MIT symposium last year on the electric vehicle.

Symposium participants generally agreed that a comprehensive federal policy to limit carbon emissions would be the most effective boost for electric vehicle development, stimulating steadily growing consumer purchases and moving the United States toward low-carbon or carbon-free generation of electricity to charge the cars.

But the summary pessimistically concludes: "The prospect for such a policy at the national level is remote. More likely, is a hodge-podge of state and federal regulation and targeted subsidies for favored technologies."

Leaving the matter to separate states "is sheer lunacy," but that is where the matter is headed, Deutch said.

"We need to continue aggressive R&D on these areas," he said. There was consensus on that point, as well, at the symposium, although the participants differed on how much government support should go to pure research versus manufacturing operations with current technologies.

Moniz said he came away from the study more hopeful about the prospects of research breakthroughs that could lower battery costs significantly. "The infrastructure issues were far more complex that I realized," he added. He and Deutch said that the summary released yesterday reflected their own conclusions and was not offered as a consensus view of the symposium participants.

Seeking a magic combination of gas prices and research dollars

The infrastructure challenges include installing tens of millions of charging stations at residences and commercial sites, strengthening the grid to handle electricity demand by plug-in vehicles, and changing utility regulations to promote nighttime recharging. Looming over these issues are the unsettled questions of who pays for the new infrastructure and who decides who pays, panel members said.

The summary takes a cautious view of the prospects for advanced batteries that would bring electric vehicle costs in line with internal combustion engines. It concludes that a "rough rule of thumb" is that battery costs must drop from $600 to about $300 per kilowatt-hour to compete against an internal combustion-engine vehicle burning gasoline at $3.50 a gallon.

"It is worth noting that there has been considerable support for battery research and development (R&D) by industry and government both in the U.S. and elsewhere for many years without the kind of major advance that would make EVs economically competitive," the summary says.

Yet-Ming Chiang, one of the MIT professors presenting the report, said the outlook is not so grim. Predicted prices and performance measures for electric vehicle batteries are improving faster than predicted a few years ago. The number of scientists working on the technology has tripled in a decade, he added. "I saw more grounds for optimism about future progress in battery technology," he said.

Deutch was on the other side. "I don't have a lot of confidence about incremental improvements in lithium-ion" batteries, he said. No one knows yet whether a successor technology such as the lithium air battery can be perfected and commercialized, said MIT professor and panelist John Heywood. "The technology hasn't yet developed enough for us to have clear answers."

Deutch offered a back-of-the-envelope assessment that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from light motor vehicles by half, between now and 2050, would require gasoline prices to rise to $6 to $8 a gallon, which would depress vehicle miles driven by 20 to 30 percent. The rest of the improvement would come from some combination of electric vehicles and low-carbon fuels, provided that the electricity for vehicles came from clean sources, he said. Stiff federal policies could achieve that result, but he dismissed the prospects of that happening in next few decades. "The answer is, 'no chance at all.'"

Closing the gap

Chiang and Moniz said plug-in hybrid vehicles -- just now appearing in the U.S. market -- are a valuable bridge toward the all-electric vehicle.

A plug-in hybrid carries a battery with a usable energy capacity of about 10 kilowatt-hours, but its range is extended by its hybrid gasoline engine that is available for recharging. If technology advances and increasing production lowers the cost to $250 per kilowatt-hour within this decade, then the incremental cost of the battery for this vehicle would be $2,500. "That's credible," said Moniz. "That isn't crazy."

Heywood said that the price gap between electric and internal combustion engine vehicles must close substantially. It is not realistic to imagine that Congress would continue the current top federal subsidy of $7,500 per vehicle if annual sales reach 1 million, he said. "Politicians won't spend that much. They'll stop short," he said.

While better technology will shrink the difference on one end, rising gasoline prices would do the same on the other, he said. The world's supply of oil may grow only half as much as demand in the coming decades, and that means higher fuel prices, he said. With all the uncertainties, the United States must keep working on the most promising electric vehicle strategies, he said. "We have no choice."

Reporter Saqib Rahim contributed.

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