Felix Kramer is the Founder of the non-profit, California Cars Initiative (Cal Cars), where he leads a team of entrepreneurs, environmentalists, engineers that focuses on developing "plug-in hybrid" technologies. He has been a founding or active member of World Wide Web Artists Consortium, New York New Media Association, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A graduate of Cornell, he lives in California.
Question: What major advances is CalCars Initiative making in energy efficiency?
Felix Kramer: Well, CalCars has been focusing on first getting plug in hybrids on the map. Most people didn’t ever hear of them. For the people who knew about them they thought it was a science project. This was back in 2002 when we were founded, all the way up to 2005 or 2006 and our goal always was mass production of plug in hybrids, so we started out trying to get the idea out and then around 2004 or 5 we realized we had to really show it, so we converted the… We were the first to convert a hybrid Prius into a plug in hybrid and that took the world by storm and we were able to take that car all over including to Washington D.C. and say this is what we could have with today’s technology. So the first goal of CalCars was to get commercialization, a big word that just means on sale at your dealer of plug in hybrids by major companies. We did conversions, but that was a strategy. The whole point was to get the big carmakers doing this and we won because this next year the Chevy Volt and a number of other cars are coming out that are mass produced plug in hybrids.
The second goal was a little broader and that’s basically the electrification of transportation and that involves the convergence of two giant industries, the power generation industry and the personal transportation industry into one large industry and the reason to do that is because electricity is simply better than gasoline in many ways, especially three. We started popularizing the idea that compared to gasoline electricity was cheaper, cleaner and domestic, so cheaper everybody can understand. Your electric mile is maybe two to four cents a mile. A gasoline mile is anywhere from eight to forty cents a mile and so that’s the cheaper on the personal level. On the larger level, the economics, we basically said before many other people and now lots of people are recognizing it, that the whole auto industry has to go electric and that’s a way to save individual companies and a whole industry as it competes worldwide.
So that’s the cheaper economic. Cleaner is CO2 primarily. Cars have gotten pretty clean in conventional emissions, but in CO2 they are a huge source of greenhouse gases and electricity is far cleaner. Of course everybody immediately then says, “Well what about the grid, the power grid, which has so much coal on it?” And even in a… on a national grid, which is half coal that electric mile is half as much CO2 as a gasoline mile. When you take into account all the emissions from the what’s called well-to-wheel, from the extraction of the fuel all the way to the tailpipe of the car, so you’re better off and in the future as the grid gets cleaner the car gets cleaner. So the car is the only device that as it gets older gets cleaner.
And then finally domestic, there is a lot of talk about energy independence. We’re not going to be energy independent, but we can have much greater energy security and that’s what electricity brings because electricity is a domestic fuel. We don’t import electricity. We use it from sources in the United States, in each country and so we’re not dependent on overseas sources and we can diversify the source from electricity because we can make electricity from almost any other fuel.
So you take all those three things together and you’ve got a fuel that is better in every way and when you combine that then back to the original point of the electrification of transportation then when you bring the power generation industry into it you’re changing not just transportation, you’re changing this other giant, which is the largest greenhouse gas contributor in the world and you’re making it more efficient. You’re saying okay, big power plants don’t have much to do at night and most of them can’t be turned off, so why not charge the cars at night and use them in the day? And then down the road a ways the power facilities are sized for maybe five or ten summer days when it’s hot. And the problem with the power generation industry, the electric power generators is they have to use the power as soon as they make it. They can’t store it anywhere, so if they could store it in millions of cars where the batteries are parked for 20 to 23 hours a day they can draw on that power. They can actually reduce the amount of generation capacity they have, so both things will make this industry more efficient and could reduce the price we pay for electricity every day.
Question: How will a cleaner electric grid make cars cleaner?
Felix Kramer: Well we have in the United States now something called renewable portfolio standards and that means that there are state level requirements for states to clean the grid, to shift from fossil fuels to renewables, whether that’s solar, wind, geothermal and so forth and they require that a certain percentage by a certain date be renewable, so that’s going to happen and we hope that also market forces are going to make it happen. For instance, Google is working on a project they call Renewable is Cheaper than Coal, RE greater than C and the whole idea is for renewable power to be cheaper than fossil fuels. As that happens the grid will get cleaner and so if you actually think about the big picture, you know global warming if you take out some things like farming and construction, agriculture and you just look at the world we live in you say if you could take every device in the world that runs on fossil fuel now and power it by electricity at the same time as you clean the grid and run it by renewables you’re done. You’ve solved the problem of global warming for everyone, every device and it’s conceptually easy. In practice it’s very hard, but Al Gore has been talking for several years now saying if we really wanted to we could clean the grid in ten years. We just have to put in those facilities for the generating facilities and we have to have the power lines to go around the country and other things, all of which are really hard to do, but we could do it if we wanted.
Question: What is the biggest challenge for CalCars in the future?
Felix Kramer: The biggest change for CalCars now that we have declared victory on our first goal is that we’re going back and reinventing ourselves to go… to start all over again with a new challenge that people are as skeptical about as when we first talked about plug in hybrids. We’re saying that we’re going to now finally get new plug in vehicles and they’re going to trickle into the marketplace. It took ten years for hybrids to be 2% of the market. If plug in hybrids come in at a rate ten times faster than that they will still be only 10 or 20% of the fleet of vehicles in 10 or 15 years from now and that’s not fast enough because in terms of global warming and energy security we need to start reducing petroleum demand now. So we can’t really wait for that and that’s a real conundrum and one of the best ways that we’ve been talking about now is what we’re calling the big fix and that involves taking a large number of the gas guzzler vehicles that are already on the road that will last for another 10 or 20 or 30 years and retrofitting them. Just like we fix buildings and change them we can do the same with cars and they can be transformed so that some of their energy is electric or all of it.
They can be plug in hybrids, a partial conversion or all electric for… depending on the range of the vehicle and the use of the vehicle, but if you take a pickup truck, an SUV, a school bus, a transit bus and a van where there is plenty of room for batteries, where the frame is very durable and the vehicle will last for a long time and you take that engine and you add components to it or you replace it we are now showing that there is a business and technology case for doing that and we’re trying to encourage people to jump in and start a whole new global industry to do this.
Question: How expensive will this be compared to buying a new car?
Felix Kramer: The reason there is a business case for gas guzzler conversions is illustrated by what Ali Emadi, professor at Illinois Institute of Technology who started a small company, HEVT.com, what he has done. He has taken the most popular vehicle in America, a Ford F150 pickup truck, which usually gets 15 miles per gallon and you can pick them up used for 5 or $10,000 because they’re… they last a long time and there is a lot of them out there and he has shown that you can take that vehicle and convert it into a plug in hybrid. At that point it will have a 30 mile all electric range and when the battery is depleted it will become a 21 mile per gallon hybrid and Emadi is saying that in large volumes that… the cost of that will be 10 to $15,000, so if you imagine a used F150 for 5 or 10,000 and you convert it for 10 to 15,000 then for under $25,000 you can have the world’s cleanest pickup truck and then if you imagine that that vehicle gets the same tax credit as a Chevy Volt because it’s displacing the same amount of gasoline and has the same social benefits, if you give it a $7,500 tax credit I think you’re in business.