As electric future unfolds, gasoline remains king

Ford's 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine on display at the Paris Auto Show in 2012. (Photo by Autoblog via Creative Commons)

Ford’s 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine on display at the Paris Auto Show in 2012. (Photo by Autoblog via Creative Commons)

DETROIT — While electric cars wow crowds and the media at auto shows, there’s no denying that for now, gasoline-powered cars still rule the roadway.

That’s not to say electric vehicle technology isn’t important, says a leading industry analyst, but the focus for the near future will continue to be developing internal-combustion engines that meet tightening fuel economy standards while still being affordable to consumers.

Brett Smith, a co-director at the Center for Automotive Research, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sat down for an interview with Midwest Energy News in front of the Chevy Volt — which incorporates both technologies — at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week.

At Detroit auto show, electric vehicles still make a splash

A GM pickup converted to an extended-range electric vehicle by VIA Motors. The company couples an electric motor to the truck's gasoline engine to create a powertrain similar to the Chevy Volt's. (Photo by Howard Lovy / Midwest Energy News)

A GM pickup converted to an extended-range electric vehicle by VIA Motors. The company couples an electric motor to the truck’s gasoline engine to create a powertrain similar to the Chevy Volt’s. (Photo by Howard Lovy / Midwest Energy News)

DETROIT — Trapeze artists performed death-defying acrobatics high above Detroit’s Cobo Hall convention floor, and a hologram of Thomas Edison gave sage advice to former General Motors Vice President Bob Lutz.

This was the way VIA Motors, a company that converts trucks, vans and SUVs into extended-range electric vehicles, rolled out three new products Monday at the North American International Auto Show, in a display reminiscent of the real-life Edison, himself the king of the publicity stunt.

And with electric vehicles still largely a niche product – even hologram Edison acknowledged “the transition will still take some time” – companies with all-electric offerings recognize the importance of competing for your attention, if nothing else.

“Customers have to know you exist,” said Lauren Flanagan, executive chair of another Lutz investment, Current Motor, an electric motorcycle company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But while the major auto companies, with a few exceptions, rolled out prototype-only electric vehicles — from the BMW i-series to Smart’s not-yet-released electric-drive vehicle — Current is already shipping vehicles to consumers even while it improves on its proprietary electric motor. The electric motorcycles are selling to, “green, affluent, techie, early adopters who want a no-emissions vehicle,” Flanagan said.

In Michigan, optimism as wind tax credit is extended

A wind turbine under construction near Pittsfield, Michigan in 2011. (Photo by Corey Seeman via Creative Commons)

A wind turbine under construction near Pittsfield, Michigan in 2011. (Photo by Corey Seeman via Creative Commons)

On New Year’s Eve, many in the wind energy industry had already assumed they had been thrown over the proverbial fiscal cliff.

Workers had been laid off even as developers were rushing to get wind-power installations up and connected to the grid before 2012 came to a close.

That assumption was based on the expected expiration of a key tax credit, which despite its off-again on-again status over the years, has helped keep the industry alive since 1992.

That’s why many in the industry were pleasantly surprised Wednesday to learn that Congress had remembered them, after all, and extended 2.2 cent per kWh Production Tax Credit into 2013.

And this time around, the credit will apply to projects that begin construction in 2013, eliminating the rush to beat the clock by the end of the year.

After Proposal 3, where is Michigan headed on clean energy?

(Photo by Dennis Pennington via Creative Commons)

For Michigan clean energy advocates, Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent energy-policy address fell a bit short when it comes to where the state goes from here after voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have strengthened the state’s renewable energy standard.

But, says Jim Dulzo of the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), “Half a loaf is better than none.”

Michigan is on track to achieve 10 percent renewables by 2015 under current law set by Snyder’s predecessor, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The ballot measure, Proposal 3, would have raised that target to 25 percent by 2025.

Snyder, in an address delivered Wednesday from the Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners — and during which he took questions via Google Hangout from audiences at NextEnergy in Detroit and MLUI in Traverse City — said he’s in favor of setting new goals for renewable energy as 2015 approaches, “but let’s set them together.”

That’s fine with Dulzo, since that is exactly what he and other renewable-energy advocates have been pushing for years.

Michigan company connects businesses to energy-saving programs

Tim Pulliam, left, and Steve Morse founded Keen Technical Solutions to help businesses take advantage of energy efficiency incentives. (Courtesy photo)

Every time Tim Pulliam and Steve Morse drive by the sprawling Ford Wayne Assembly Plant, they have to laugh just a little bit.

The complex parking lot features rows upon rows of light poles, each containing high-pressure sodium, thousand-watt bulbs — all left on during the day. And at the end of the campus sits one solar array that would offset a few light poles.

Not very efficient — especially in a time of austerity in all businesses great and small. But Pulliam and Morse, co-founders of Keen Technical Solutions in Traverse City, Michigan, are much too busy to worry about inefficiency at the Ford plant, which is not a client of theirs.

What they can do, however, is save money for clients at a different end of the automobile chain — in the showroom. Auto dealerships represent almost half the customers for the four-year-old company, which makes energy-saving improvements in buildings.

What they are doing seems to be working, as Keen was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the 500 fastest growing private companies in the United States. It was ranked first in Michigan (out of 9 Michigan companies), number 60 nationwide and sixth out of all the energy-sector companies.

In Michigan, automakers plan road to the future

The first pre-production Chevy Volt rolls off the assembly line in 2010. While electric and hybrid vehicles capture much of the attention, most of the Big Three automakers’ current efforts to improve efficiency and cut emissions are focused on improving internal-combustion engines. (Photo by Argonne National Laboratory via Creative Commons)

In what one executive calls “the depths of 2009,” when Chrysler was in bankruptcy, the company took a look at the market and regulatory forces that awaited it.

And despite a high-profile push by competitors into electric vehicles, the company decided it’s still more cost-effective in the short term to squeeze more life out of the old internal combustion engine.

Ford and GM actually did the same thing. While emissions standards over the next few decades will force electric and, ultimately, fuel cell-powered vehicles onto roadways around the world, automakers are making midterm changes to gas-powered engines that will help them keep up with more-stringent regulations while still meeting consumer demands.

“We actually do believe in electrification,” said Bob Lee, vice president and head of engine and electrified propulsion engineering at Chrysler. “We just believe in using it sparingly and for the right kinds of targeted applications. What we’ve been doing the last two years is developing a technology for commercialization. We’ve been preparing for that shift from where the regulatory push someday will come to the point where customers will start pulling these to the marketplace, and we want to be ready.”

Traverse City takes a lead on energy efficiency

A Traverse City home gets efficiency upgrades thanks to the TC Saves program. (Photo courtesy MLUI)

Cone Drive Operations Inc., based in Traverse City, Michigan, makes and repairs precision gears for a variety of industries from defense to wind power.

But the company did not need to chop the air with even one wind turbine to save just as much energy as one would produce. For the past three years, Cone Drive has saved 560,000 kilowatt hours of power through energy efficiency improvements, according to the company.

“In efficiency vs. windmills, a windmill generates about 600,000 kilowatt hours a year,” said Pete Ostrowski, Cone Drive’s head of environmental health and safety. “So, this shows what one small business did as far as efficiency goes.”

But Cone Drive did not do it alone. The company used energy-efficiency rebates offered through the local utility, Traverse City Light and Power, along with a variety of other local incentives. In fact, this community’s unusual level of cooperation between government, local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits and homeowners in creating more energy-efficient buildings is becoming a model for the rest of the state.