The "Business of Plugging In" Conference – Continued

I marvel at how different the 2009 “Business of Plugging In” conference was in comparison to a number of the other shows I’ve attended recently on renewable energy and electric transportation. Perhaps most obvious was the attention on job creation and a return to prosperity, and how economic issues far outweighed discussion about the environment. There was virtually no mention of global warming, and remarkably little discussion of the consequences of US dependency on foreign oil. Of course, to be fair, the show was about (as its name suggests) the business side of the equation. And it’s hard to lose track of the idea that we were in Michigan, the state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate.

What we did hear a lot over the past few days are what I would call “disingenous self-serving platitudes,” which I refer to as DSPs. One that came up a great deal was the idea that the OEMs, policy makers, utilities, and small businesses are collaborating to make the world a better place for car consumers. Oh please. I find that truly nauseating — not because I wouldn’t dearly like to see it, but because the precise opposite is true. Most of these people are busily but quietly building proprietary standards to lock out competitors and lock in profits — at the expense of what might have otherwise been a smooth and robust adoption curve. A frank admission of this obvious fact would have been really refreshing.

There were dozens of other minor examples that I won’t bore you with; as I mentioned yesterday, almost every speaker had some sort of private business agenda that he/she aggressively pressed down upon the audience. But there were real real doozies as well, a short list of which includes:

DSP #1: Toyota said it will bring along plug-in hybrid technology “soon,” a move that is hailed immediately by the moderator as “bold and courageous.”

The Truth: That company could have, and most people would say should have introduced this technology years and years ago. But, already perceived as being green, the company was under no pressure to do so, and chose to milk the profits out of its current technology platform until it was forced to move along.

DSP #2: GM represented itself as strong, focused, and committed to the plug-in market.

The Truth: Every man, woman, and child in the US was forced to buy GM stock at dozens of times its actual fair market value, because of the company’s astonishing lack of focus and commitment to building cars people wanted.  Here’s an article on AutoBlogGreen that goes into more detail.

DSP #3: The governor of the State of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, proudly announced that Michigan has received about 60% of the total DoE stimulus money aimed at advanced car batteries, explaining that Michigan had effectively made the case that it was committed to a green automotive future.

The Truth: Could she possibly have been serious in this totally outrageous statement? Isn’t this the home of the most vigorous opposition to CAFE standards? Aren’t two of the three Michigan-based OEMs bankrupt precisely because they refused to build environmentally friendly cars that Americans wanted? This was so offensive that I found myself chuckling — softly but audibly. (You should have seen the glares from a few of those within earshot.)

PhotobucketAt a certain point, it looked as if it was going to be a solid three days of misleading self-congratulations, arrogance, and gleeful ignorance. But then Ray Lane of venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins took the stage with an approach that was honest, and diametrically opposed to most of those who had come before, or who would follow. I had the opportunity to thank him for his candor after his talk.

He told the audience that investment in innovation in the renewables space is an absolute imperative, and that, despite the rhetoric, he sees little sincere commitment. He pointed out that the US has made such investment in Internet technology, and has seen the results in terms of dominating that industry with Google, Mircosoft, Oracle, Cisco, etc. However, he showed us that we’ve done very little in renewable energy, and that almost all the top players in solar, wind, geothermal, hydrokinetics, etc., are outside the US.

He’s certainly right: the time for politics and glib language is over. We need to look the issue honestly in the face, knock off the deceit, and deliver technology that people honestly want. There is a ready and willing customer base who can’t wait to start buying, I can assure you.

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20 comments on “The "Business of Plugging In" Conference – Continued
  1. Don Harmon says:

    Craig, thanks for going so I didn’t have to! It’s been shocking to watch the DOE dole out huge amounts of money to the “usual suspects” and mask it under the umbrella of the Economic Stimulus Act that Obama crafted to pay back his cronies who put him in office.

    If I sound bitter – I am. I don’t see where any of this money has created a single job – except for the lawyers and those who are hired to launch IPO’s like the recent on that A123 just finished. These ARRA Battery grant awards went to all the big names with a / behind them and a foreign technology provider (Korea, China, etc.) Wonder where all the picks and shovels are?

  2. Ed Walton says:

    I think that it is fair to say that corporate America has one interest, and one interest only; and that is corporate America. We have seen this type of behavior in the banking industry, with the misuse, in my opinion, of American taxpayer money. We also see this in the big three, with their lack of gains(except Ford, who refused the money), and their sisterhood in the “gas game” with the petrochemical giants. America is being steered by these egocentric money grubbers toward more of the same gluttony and greed that says NO to renewable energy, while feeding the oil of countries that hate us right down our throats.
    Nuclear power is far less expensive in the long run, and I, for one, will be waiting until someone comes up with a viable electric car to put my money on another auto maker. I doubt it will come from this country. I can’t see supporting the oil/auto industry in this country, they love each other too much. They can support themselves.

    N

  3. tina juarez says:

    I applaud you for being able to sit through the above mentioned presentation, lacking your skills, I would’ve have been gagging or laughing, rolling in the aisles, as such pronouncements as you mentions – and there were MORE??? Thank you for keeping us in touch with the posing going on in green energy. I am also grateful that Kleiner Perkins’ voice of reality was present. Since ofted-repeated lies break peoples confidence in the truth it is really important to get exactly this message out there! thank you!

  4. arlene allen says:

    Normally, I would do my best to add something positive to the discussion. Quite frankly, I feel that the transportation industry in the USA is already positioning itself to inflate consumer expectation and subsequently slam them into the embankment as hard as is possible. We already did this once in the last ten years (CARB / GM / OIL), and it is a demonstrably solid strategy – that of punishing people in a manner so as to make them acknowledge the “truth” as it was originally presented. If any joy is to come out of the electric transportation sector, I am assuming it will come from europe or the pacific rim. We have all but given away battery R&D and subsequent manufacturing. The commodities market is going to do its best to manipulate lithium and rare earths mining a la the $140 barrel runup. As time has passed, capital investment in bitumin and sands recovery has proceeded and we will continue our attempts to test the tops of the Hubbert curves. The net result is that we will successfully promote the oil economy for quite some time to come. The energy and creativity of humans is sometimes unfortunate, in that we apply ourselves just as well to the bad ideas as the good.

  5. Craig,
    My company is producing Plug-in Singapore2009 this November and I’ll tell you the concern you express is not limited to the U.S. In the case of Singapore at least they don’t have a domestic car market to protect so they should be more open to building out an EV infrastructure. Without consumer incentives of some sort though I don’t see how this will ever happen. Here’s an article I wrote that was published this week in EV World:http://evworld.com/article.cfm?storyid=1779
    Thanks for all your good work Craig!
    Marc

  6. Tom Rainey says:

    I attended the “Business of Plugging In” conference and was encouraged to see so many auto executives (OEM’s and suppliers) and other business people in the audience rather than government, non-profit organizations and environmental groups. The keynote speaker, General Wesley Clark, spoke about the danger we face in our dependence on foreign energy sources and the environmental impact of fossil fuels. I am with one of those small companies working on EV’s and understand and we need to protect our Intellectual Property or watch it go off shore.

    • Thanks for this, Tom. I was there only Tuesday and Wednesday, and so I missed this; I’m sure it was good. But here’s what I don’t understand: isn’t it OBVIOUS that dependence on foreign oil is dangerous in every conceivable way? Haven’t we been saying this for half a century? Do we really need to attend a conference and have someone tell us this? Wasn’t the DoE formed (32 years ago) for the purpose of ending this condition? No offense to the general, but personally, I would be embarrassed to stand in front of a group of people and make this statement as if it were “new news.”

      To me, our energy policy is the most obvious form of corruption imaginable. It’s good to have sound ideas on energy coming from estimable sources like General Clark. But this is a reminder that until and unless we have meaningful campaign reform, and we get the oil companies and the politicians out of each others’ pockets, nothing is going to change — regardless of how many stars the speaker has on his uniform.

  7. Mike McCabe says:

    It sounds like you missed the session with Wesley Clark. He specifically addressed our dependence on foreign oil.

  8. Roberto DePaschoal says:

    I think this would solve the so debated EV puzzle.

    http://www.2greenenergy.com/ev-charging-infrastructure-unique-approach/1720/

  9. Dave Oicles says:

    Craig, I am glad you are on top of this. It is such a slow process in the U.S. to move forward in green technology. You are right about Toyota. Their decision to postpone the plug-in version of the Prius is all about money. You would think that it would at least have been offered as an option to see just how many of us would take the bait. Keep up the drive.

  10. I was at the conference too, but came away with a very different message. Yes there were lots of corporate “suits” there, and of course they always present themselves in the best light possible.

    What amazed me is how many high-level people from auto makers, government, utilities, all agreed on one thing — the electric vehicle is coming. No doubt, no argument. I found it truly amazing and refreshing to hear that, it’s a huge change from a couple years ago. Presenters could use phrases like “the biggest change in transportation since the Model T” and all the heads in the room were nodding, not shaking. My friends, the revolution is going mainstream.

    I am far from an apologist for corporate america. But it’s clear to me that at least some people inside organizations like GM and the utility industry truly do have the EV vision.

    On a more personal level, it was really fun to see all these guys in black three-piece suits riding around on our electric motorbikes, and coming back with the “EV grin” a mile wide.

  11. This appears to have been similar to the Plug-In Conference in D.C. last year.
    I listened to so many speakers stating we were so far away from EV technology because people would not buy it and the technology was not ready.
    Afterward, I addressed the rep. from the DOE during the Q&A session and told him there were already companies producing great products with current technology and he basically blew it off and said he believed the government should only work through the OE manufacturers due to warranty concerns.
    It is disappointing that so little has changed in the past 18 months.

    • Well, the good thing now is that the time for heel-dragging is past; this is happening whether the traditional OEMs want it or not. And I don’t think it will be as bad a thing for them as I orginally thought. With technology moving so quickly, people won’t want a several year old EV, any more than they’ll want a several year old PC.

  12. Tom says:

    Craig;
    Thanks for your great work.

    Just want to say I have no problem with corporate America wanting to make profits. The problem is government being in the pocket of special interests (not just Corporate America but Unions etc.).

    Government is in total disconnect with the needs and wants of the people.

    Obama has wasted his first year in office pushing a health care plan that takes everything that is wrong with the current system and makes it worse (a topc for a different site).

    The focus should be on the economy and creating jobs in America. The easiest way to do that (as mentioned with how our economy grew with investments in the internet, communication and information technology) is investments in renewable energy (and nuclear) and electric mobility.

    Instead of $4500 cash for clunkers, how about $8000 cash at time of sale for the first 2 million electric cars the slowly phasing that down.. That would sure speed up plug-ins, EREVS and BEVs coming to market. If the credit was at $8000 for every 150,000 miles AER (The volt will have 150,000 mile warrarnty on the battery), then each $8000 credit would lead to a car that displaced at least $12,000 and probably well over $20,000 to purchase foreign oil. That alone would pay for the credit not even taking into account the impact of other economic activity.

    And the sooner we get the imported OIL down to ZERO the sooner we can probably take one or two carrier strike groups (of our 11) and moth ball them. That would pay for the tax credit as well.

    • You’re absolutely right that the economics of going to electric transportation are quite positive overall — especially when the true costs of fossil fuels are considered. Unfortunately, those true costs are not borne by the oil companies, i.e., those with the true money and power. It will be interesting to see what happens. A TON of people are aware of this corruption, and there is a LOT of anger regarding it and other huge economic issues: unemployment, bailouts, the mortgaging of our future, loss of US competitiveness, etc. — not to mention other areas of grave dissatisfaction, e.g., healthcare and the Mideast quagmire. It will be interesting to see what all this unrest ultimately foments.

  13. LaVonna Bledsoe says:

    Dear Craig,

    Thank you for providing all this wonderful information. I can’t help but bring to mind the video of GM crushing its newly made electric cars when I read the above. Along with you, I wish for a saner future for all the peoples of earth. Thanks for all you are doing to help.

  14. Chip Aadland says:

    We have the ability to divest ourselves of foreign oil and dominate the hybrid market by going to generator/electric motor vehicles especially Semi trucks and commercial vehicles. Long range, extremely high mileage and lowered maintenance costs and fewer maintenance issues. Batteries can’t haul semi truck trailers yet and all commercial and service industry vehicles would have difficulty at best, but with true hybrid vehicles with batteries just to start the generator we could build trucks and SUV’s that would make the prius look like a gas guzzler. Look at locomotives, and ice breakers. The Volt is theoretically going to get over 230 mpg. The we continue on battery R&D along with super capacitors.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "The "Business of Plugging In" Conference – Continued"
  1. […] Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) Another benefit of attending the “Business of Plugging In” conference was the opportunity to reconnct with old friends, and to conduct interviews so as […]

  2. […] of what Ray Lane, partner in venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, told the audience in the “Business of Plugging In” conference a few weeks ago: The United States needs to cut the rhetoric and make real […]

  3. […] call readers’ attention to a really important discussion occuring in the comments under the post re: the Business of Plugging. I encourage even more opinions on the subject here; please feel free to join in. var […]

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