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Electric Vehicles Speed Ahead

By Sara Murphy - Apr 26, 2013 at 9:15AM

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EVs are going to take off in the 21st century’s new energy economy.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are generating a lot of buzz lately. At this week's Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, influential characters repeatedly spoke of the EV revolution with gleeful enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Motor Show is opening up the throttle right this minute, and EVs have a lot to do with it. This is a glittery bandwagon, folks. Jump on?

Who likes EVs and why?
Michael Liebreich, Chief Executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, or BNEF, told me that he sees a real opportunity for EVs as we transition to the energy system of the 21st century. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, sees EVs as an integral part of the electricity distribution system of the future. Bill Richardson, former U.S. Energy Secretary, declared that EVs are "booming." Rick Geiger, executive director of utilities and smart grid at Cisco Systems, described the electric vehicle battery as the poster child for distributed energy resources. And Daniel Poneman, Acting U.S. Energy Secretary, described EVs as a critical element of electric grid modernization. Phew! That's a whole lotta love.

Here's the critical point: We cannot assess EVs in a vacuum. Honestly, we cannot assess anything in a vacuum, but certainly not anything to do with energy. As our society as a whole deals more directly with the massive challenges before it -- climate change, population growth, water scarcity -- we necessarily embark on a new energy paradigm that lightens our carbon output and improves our resilience to natural disasters. The only way to view the EV is as a part of this complex web. It's about mobility, yes, but it's more about energy.

This is the reason David Crane described EVs and solar -- together -- as catalysts for sustainable developments in grid architecture. Rooftop solar and EVs are both especially centered on the home. The former generates extra energy during peak demand; the latter stores it during off-peak times. They are complementary in managing the stressors on our modern grid.

Who's got nitrous in the tank?
There have been several announcements this week in the EV space. At the BNEF Summit, General Motors (GM 2.65%) announced that its Chevrolet Spark EV is setting a new benchmark for efficiency with an EPA-estimated 119 MPGe (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent), and a range of 82 miles. Pam Fletcher, chief engineer of General Motors and so-called "Queen of the Volt," acknowledged the extent to which consumers hold off on EVs because of range anxiety -- the fear that an EV will die far from a charging station -- but said GM had solved this problem with its range-extender technology.

GM's new Spark EV at the BNEF Summit. Photo credit: Sara E. Murphy.

General Motors has some experience in this arena, having launched the Chevy Volt. Fletcher said the Volt represented a step change in consumers' perceptions of what an EV really has to offer. She said that with 100% torque on demand, Volts are fun, and a pleasure to drive. According to GM surveys, 92% percent of Volt owners would buy another Volt.

Fletcher said GM is bringing its Cadillac ELR extended range electric coupe to market at the end of this year. She said the Caddy will employ the same technology as the Volt, taking the best of the Volt's all-electric propulsion with extended range, then wrapping a luxury coupe around it.

Meanwhile, at this year's Shanghai Motor Show, newly re-emerged Detroit Electric announced its partnership with China's Geely Automobile to develop EVs for the Chinese market. Lamentably, I incorrectly predicted that Detroit Electric would be hitching its wagon to BYD. I got that one wrong, but Geely is no less interesting. Geely owns Sweden's Volvo Cars, and recently withdrew as a potential bidder for Fisker Automotive, the failing California green-car start-up. It will be interesting to see if this tie-up gives Tesla (TSLA 4.67%) a run for its money.

Speaking of Tesla, its founder Elon Musk tweeted on Thursday that the company would be announcing a new strategy on Friday. His exact words were, "Announcement of new @TeslaMotors strategy tomorrow. Tesla owners will like this." Wall Street got all twitterpated, and Tesla shares were up more than 3% at Thursday's closing.

Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, senior advanced transport analyst at BNEF, said Tesla had built its brand value and customer base by making "cool" cars, irrespective of their EV qualities. Be that as it may, he was enthusiastic about the EV space, in general. He noted that, as we change vehicles' drivetrain, we get more optionality on the fuel side, paving the way for new approaches like Tesla's.

Tesla has a partnership with SolarCity (SCTY.DL) -- another Elon Musk vehicle -- to provide Tesla drivers with solar-fueled battery-recharging stations. As I said above, EVs are complementary to renewable-energy deployment, particularly solar. In the new energy ecosystem, such partnerships will be critical to ongoing resilience.

Watch the EV space, folks, and consider getting some skin in the game. A lot of smart people think this is just the beginning for a very promising space.


Sara Murphy has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter at @SMurphSmiles. The Motley Fool recommends Cisco Systems, General Motors, and Tesla Motors . The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors . Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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