You've watched in horror as a blown BP well fills the Gulf of Mexico with despair. Dick Dell is horrified, too. But it's only the latest disgrace our nation's suffered, Dell says, because of our national addiction to oil.
Anne Tazewell wonders why President Obama isn't on his soapbox calling for higher taxes on gasoline to fund a crash program of developing replacement fuels. Ewan Pritchard just shakes his head thinking what could be done in the labs if they were given more resources.
These three leaders in a Raleigh-centered alternative fuels network must look like a rebel base to Big Oil—and they do indeed have a coup in mind. Each one heads a small but important regiment in the battle to break oil's grip on American travel using an old technology made new.
It's electric batteries—just the way old Thomas Alva Edison drew it up. Except that these batteries are to Edison's as the cell phone is to Alexander Graham Bell's invention.
The first automobiles ran on batteries. But when the modern gas-fueled internal combustion engine debuted in the 20th century, even Edison understood that petroleum trumped electricity when it came to powering a car that wasn't attached to a wire.
A century later, though, that advantage is poised to flip. Breakthroughs in battery and related technologies began about four years ago. They continue at a rapid clip, and nowhere faster than in a research center on N.C. State University's Centennial Campus, aptly named the FREEDM Systems Center. (It stands for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems.) It's Pritchard's home base and a key part of the Raleigh network.
It won't be long, these experts say, before the power of car batteries will catch up to gasoline's—and electric power is already a good deal cheaper. When it happens, it will usher in a new era for American transportation—and in our way of life.
Picture more people in center cities, less suburban sprawl. Picture a lot of small, quiet, emission-free electric vehicles, especially in downtowns. Picture electric-powered streetcars. They're coming, with enormous savings for the American economy.
Further, electric batteries are two-way devices, able to draw power from the electric grid and store it, and also to discharge stored power to a vehicle or back to the grid. Thus a new generation of electric-powered vehicles could—when combined with the coming smart-grid technologies—transform the electric-utilities industry as well.
Indeed, as profound as the changes in transportation would be, the changes in electric generation could be even more significant: Centralized power plants may give way over time to a decentralized system of power generation, with power coming from rooftop solar panels, backyard wind turbines, and yes, battery power from literally millions of idle vehicles. In effect, every plant, office building and household would be its own two-way substation.
It won't happen overnight, obviously. And the extent to which such a far-flung system of small generators can replace large nuclear and coal-powered plants is much debated. But the electric utilities, including Progress Energy and Duke Energy, have moved from a posture of slow-walking the change to one of promising to lead it over the next 10–15 years. Critics question whether the utilities are really prepared to share control and cede power to the masses. Like the phone company before them, however, their choice may be limited to accepting the new technologies or clinging to their old ones as they become obsolete.
Up the road comes Tazewell, transportation program manager at the North Carolina Solar Center, part of N.C. State University's College of Engineering. She's driving a GEM, one of the small, so-called neighborhood-electric vehicles that uses no gasoline yet can travel at 25 miles per hour. With zero tailpipe emissions, it's so quiet and perfect for zipping around the campus, which Tazewell loves. "You recharge it at night," she says, smiling brightly. "Just plug it in to an outlet."
Battery-powered vehicles aren't the only way to attack oil, Tazewell adds. Biofuels and natural gas will also play a part. But long-term, she's convinced that the biggest weapons in the alt-fuels arsenal will be electric.
A mile away on Centennial Campus, Pritchard is on a mission as he takes the wheel of a Toyota Prius hybrid to which a plug-in lithium-ion battery pack has been added. The converted Prius can go 100 miles or more on a gallon of gasoline.
Pritchard, a mechanical engineer and the director of industry and innovation at N.C. State's Advanced Transportation Energy Center (ATEC), part of the FREEDM Systems Center, is on his way to a lab where even more powerful and efficient lithium-ion batteries are in development. These batteries use nanofibers that, under a high-powered microscope, make a human hair look gigantic in comparison.
Later, seeing the new fibers spun and tested, Pritchard loosens up with a warning for Big Oil. "It's pretty revolutionary," he says. "I think the 2015–2020 time frame will be a time of dramatic change."
By 2020, electric-powered vehicles can overtake the gas-guzzlers?
"I think," he answers, nodding. Though as a scientist, he must add a disclaimer. "Unless something happens."
Arriving on the NCSU campus from his office in North Raleigh, Dell drives a twin of the Prius plug-in that Pritchard was driving. That's not surprising, since Dell's company sells the lithium-ion battery packs—he became a certified installer with ATEC's help—and put one in the ATEC car.
All six of Progress Energy's plug-in hybrids and the seven owned by Raleigh's Public Utilities division were also Dell's work.
It's a small world in the Triangle when it comes to the early adopters of the electric-vehicle vision, Tazewell observes. "So we all know each other."
Dell's company, the Advanced Vehicle Research Center, is based in Raleigh with an eight-person shop located in Danville, Va. The nine-year old center is a for-profit company with a nonprofit research and education arm, he says, though, moneywise, it was hard to tell the difference until the second quarter of this year, when the for-profit finished in the black for the first time.
An electrical engineer, Dell worked for the Air Force (Vietnam, Cape Canaveral) and for IBM until 2001, when he started his company. IBM wanted him to relocate out of Raleigh, he says. He wanted to stay. Also, he was convinced that "peak oil" was upon us—the point at which, as forecast in the '50s by a now-famous oil geologist named M. King Hubbert, the world's demand for oil would outstrip the ability to develop new supplies.
"When gasoline hit $1 a gallon in 2001," Dell says, "I thought the coming oil crisis that we'd been talking about for 30 years was on us."
Sure enough, he continues, the world's known reserves of oil have fallen ever since, forcing oil companies to drill—and spill—in ever-deeper and more dangerous offshore waters. The Gulf spill isn't unique or rare, he says. Such spills are common. We just don't hear about them, because two-thirds of our oil is imported. (In another recent oil-related disaster, an oil tanker exploded in Congo, killing hundreds of people.)
Meanwhile, the price of oil has skyrocketed. From the $10–$30-a-barrel range of a decade ago, oil now sells for $75 a barrel and reached $150 at the height of the price spike of 2008, when gasoline jumped over $4 a gallon.
Dell is easygoing, but he shows his irritation as he traces the origins of the current Great Recession not to mortgages or derivatives but to the oil-price spike of '08. At that point, the U.S. bill for imported petroleum was about $2 billion a day. Now, with the recession, it's about $1 billion a day—which is still, Dell says, a disaster for the country and the world.
"We're sending hundreds of billions of dollars every year to people who hate us," he says. "We can't keep doing that."
Dell's doing his part, but so far that part is small. His company is responsible for 120 plug-in battery conversions, all on Prius models or the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. The former uses a 5-kilowatt-hour battery pack; the latter, a 13.3-kwh pack. Both are manufactured by Hymotion, a Massachusetts-based company. Dell's shop is working on a different pack for Ford F-150 truck models.
On the other hand, the Hymotion battery is the biggest seller in the country, Dell says, and he's one of just 12 distributors.
The scarcity of distributors indicates how far this technology has to go, he adds. He has 120 hybrid-to-plug-in conversions on the road, compared with 300 million gas-powered cars and trucks.
Three problems confront the battery packs, Dell says. One is the high price, plus the fact that while the federal government has offered incentives of up to $7,500 to buyers of new hybrid models, so far there are no incentives for plug-in conversions.
A second is "range anxiety." The average driver goes 24 miles in a day, Dell says. Still, drivers worry that the 35-mile range of a converted Prius won't be enough, and they'll end up running on gasoline—and not getting that 100-mpg thrill—a lot of the time.
Very few public charging stations exist in the Triangle, but this fall, some 200 more are coming, most of them paid for by the electric utilities and municipal governments spending federal stimulus grants. Dell's company is a distributor for one model, Coulomb Technologies' Smartlet Charging Station. A one-outlet station costs $5,000, Dell says. A new two-outlet station is due out soon and will cost the same. The stations look like a gas pump.
But the biggest boost for plug-ins, Dell says, would be a boost in their power, relative to their size and cost, allowing a car-sized battery to go hundreds of miles, not dozens. If a plug-in car could go 200 miles between charges, and you could charge it at home overnight—and "top it off" while you're working at your company's charging station—it wouldn't need a gasoline engine at all.
For that kind of boost, the FREEDM Systems Center, and ATEC, is the place to look.