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Freedom is an Electric Car

Sarah A. W. Fitts, Co-Chair, Energy and Natural Resources Practice Group, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP 

What if you had the solution for the United States' dependence on imported oil parked in your garage? Elected officials and wanna-be-elected presidential candidates lament the dependence on imported oil, the price of gasoline and the alleged costs of subsidizing the clean tech industries, but the solutions they propose remain mid-twentieth century: more oil drilling, maintaining subsidies and other benefits for oil and gas producers, pipelines across irreplaceable farmland and aquifers, and rolling back environmental regulations that protect health and safety to reduce costs. Meanwhile, programs to promote the twenty-first century solutions, such as the electric car and other advanced technology vehicles, have been targeted for dramatic cuts in the latest round of budget fights.

The facts are straight-forward and compelling, and if they were better understood, the push for wide-spread development and adoption of the electric car and other alternate fuel vehicles would be bi-partisan and not controversial. The simple logic is this: the United States spends billions of dollars per month buying oil, much of it from regimes we do not consider to be our friends. Roughly two-thirds of the oil used in the United States is used in transportation. Almost no electricity in the United States is generated from oil. Therefore, by shifting transportation from gasoline to electric power we can give up oil without giving up our cars. That is why organizations like Securing America's Future Energy and its affiliate the Electrification Coalition, an organization supported and led by serious U.S. multinationals such as FedEx, are championing the electric car. It may be the simplest and most cost effective way to reduce our dependence on imported oil.

The global competition to develop the best batteries and electric car technologies is off and running. China, Korea, Japan and others are all making significant investments in developing the technology and manufacturing capacity. The United States, through the Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Incentive Program has made loans to companies like Ford, Fisker, Tesla and Nissan to increase battery and advanced technology vehicle component manufacturing in the United States. Vehicle manufacturing in the United States is not just about creating jobs. It is about nurturing and growing an entire industry that starts with intellectual property, including patents, know how, skills and includes the supply chain necessary to carry out the rapid innovation in this field. If next generation transportation is not developed here, it will surely be developed elsewhere, probably with assistance from other governments that want to build an industrial backbone, as we continue to allow ours to atrophy.

The electric car is not pie in the sky. The electric car is real and you could buy one. The Chevy Volt is already available in dealerships near you. Other cars are on their way. Some are new American car companies: Tesla or Fisker. Others are names you already know: Ford and Nissan, for example. These are large companies that are making a significant bet on technology.

The electric car has some attractive advantages in its own right. First, we already have a fuel distribution system -- every garage with an electric outlet could become a "filling station" every time a car is plugged in. Electric vehicles have limited or no tail pipe emissions, which could have significant positive benefits in congested areas. (The total air quality improvements, including green house gasses, will, obviously depend on what fuels are used to generate electricity, which is a separate but worthwhile discussion.) Finally, the cost of operating an electric car may be much cheaper than buying gasoline. FedEx's Gina Adams, in a keynote address at the RETECH 2011 conference in Washington DC in September, reported that FedEx operates vehicles in its electric fleet at the equivalent of 50¢ per gallon. If the front-end price can be reduced, the lifetime cost of car ownership could drop meaningfully.

The electric car has its skeptics, and appropriately so. The models currently available have range limitations and cannot be charged fast enough to suit the needs of some drivers. In many parts of the country, the electric grid is decades old and some worry that it is not capable of serving the increased usage demands of electric cars. Electric cars remain expensive, relative to other cars, and reliability and maintenance are untested. And some people simply have a hard time imagining a car not run on gasoline. These are challenges that the car manufacturers and electric utilities will need to address to sell their products.

The twenty-first century car is electric. If the U.S. wants energy independence and doesn't want to cede its role as technology leader of the future, the rapid development and deployment of the electric car, and other alternate fuel vehicles, should be a national priority. As President Obama and Department of Energy's Secretary Chu have said "This is Our Generation's Sputnik Moment". The administration's push for wider investment in and adoption of energy efficient "green" technologies, including the electric car, should be a bipartisan effort. Contact your representatives and let them know that you want America to be energy independent, that you want to drive the car of the future and that you want that car to be developed and made in America. It would be a sad day for the United States if the only way to reduce our dangerous and expensive dependence on imported oil, is to replace it with a possibly dangerous and equally expensive dependence on imported batteries and electric drive components.

Sarah A. W. Fitts co-chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Practice Group at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. The views she expresses are her own. She is based in New York City.

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