McCains $300 million battery prize is small change … the cost of a paint shop.”

The NY Times Wheel blog interviewed a number of analysts, including me, about “The Candidates’ Clean Car Plans.” These plans include McCain’s $300 million challenge for a next-generation battery, and Obama’s “more detailed plan” whose cornerstone is “an ambitious goal to put a million plug-ins on the road by 2015.”

I have never had much love for McCain’s pointless prize (see “McCain proposes another energy gimmick. Is this $300M to ExxonMobil?“). Turns out not many other experts do either:

“The key technology is lithium-ion batteries,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan. “We know how to make them, but not inexpensively. So each generation is better than the last, and nobody is going to jump to fill orders for a million units and then find out their investment is wiped out because we’ve since developed something much better. A million plug-in hybrids by 2015 is probably a stretch. Is it impossible? No, but it’s very difficult.”

Mr. McCain’s $300 million “is small change in this business,” Mr. Cole added. “It’s not insignificant, but it’s the cost of a paint shop in an auto factory.”

Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, agrees. “Our industry in the U.S. spends more than $18 billion per year on research and development,” Mr. Territo said. “There are some manufacturers who have estimated they spend as much as $1 million an hour investing in new technologies. The McCain initiative is helpful, but these manufacturers are already spending billions of dollars bringing plug-in hybrids and other advanced technologies to the market.”

According to the NYT‘s Jim Motavalli, I am one of the “optimists out there” [and here you all thought I was one of the pessimists out there]:

“I do think the one million vehicles by 2015 is a reasonable goal,” said Joseph Romm, an author who served as acting assistant secretary of energy for efficiency and renewable energy in the Clinton administration. “Half of all new federal car purchases by 2012 is probably trickier, because it’s a ramp-up issue. But I would add that there is hardly a point in running for president if you can’t advance stretch goals.”

Mr. Romm called Mr. McCain’s battery prize “a joke” because “every energy and car company on the planet knows they’ll get rich by improving batteries.”

Okay, maybe the battery price isn’t a joke because it’s not really that funny. Unless of coarse ExxonMobil ends up with the money, which I think we’d all have to admit would be pretty hilarious in a gallows humor sort of way.

But I do think it is an essential truth that the next president needs stretch goals for this country, especially after eight years of chronic underachievement thanks to chronically underachieving presidential leadership.

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5 Responses to McCains $300 million battery prize is small change … the cost of a paint shop.”

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Can’t post this on the Hansen thread above, something about ‘sorry, no posts match your criteria’, even though earlier I read the one comment there.

    “The Big Difference in Obama’s and McCain’s Plans for Our Energy Future”

  2. red says:

    Do you have a proposal for an energy and/or environment prize that would be useful? If so, how would it work? i.e. what innovation would it be for, would it be government funded or not, about what would the prize value be, etc?

    It wouldn’t necessarily have to be for some breakthrough technology – maybe just pushing a near-present technology area that currently doesn’t get investment ahead a bit, focusing public attention on a problem, encouraging positive business or consumer behavior, or the like.

  3. mauri pelto says:

    Since when would congress ever sign onto a prize money award of substantial size. Govt. likes to spread the incentives so we get more than one company who can win, via grants, and we emerge with more than one battery type that is decent.

  4. red says:

    It’s true that it’s difficult to convince Congress to fund large innovation prizes. In the space field, the main grass-roots organizations, which don’t agree on much of anything, were able to agree that they want NASA to fund its Centennial Challenges prize program. They pushed for it, and the Bush administration asked for $4M per year, a rather tiny amount in a $17B budget. However, for several years Congress has appropriated $0 to the prizes, while piling on stacks of earmarks that have nothing to do with what the agency should be doing, as well as lots of other “jobs in my district” types of programs – some useful, and many not so useful.

    Some of the prizes Centennial Challenges would like to fund are in “Alternative Energy” and “Clean, quiet aircraft” categories. They already have a prize to encourage small electric or fuel efficient aircraft.

    Interestingly, Obama’s space policy favors prizes, while McCain’s is silent on that subject.

    Anyone interested in this should follow the Lunar Lander Challenge, which is on and webcast today. Yesterday a team won part of it ($350 thousand). Their long term goal is to launch people, environment science experiments, and so on on suborbital flights. My guess is that it would have taken a government/contractor program over $100M for a system comparable to what they’ve achieved so far (based on the budget of a similar effort in the ’90s that was the heroic low-cost government aerospace project of its day).

    The Wearable Power Prize competition was also recently held and won. That’s probably more relevant to battery prize discussions.

    I certainly don’t think these efforts are appropriate for any problem or circumstance, but I do think they can contribute if managed well. That’s why I think it would be good to come up with useful ideas for energy or environment prizes (whether $300M or $300Th, publicly or privately funded, technically or socially oriented, etc). If nothing else, proposing an innovation prize idea and pointing out step by step why it’s better than the $300M battery prize idea would form an interesting political contrast.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    mauri pelto — DARPA did some million dollar prizes: robot automobile drivers.