NRC panel of advocates for dead-end hydrogen cars, chaired by a former ExxonMobil executive, trashes plug-in hybrids in deeply flawed report, Part 1

Media fails to report conflict of interest

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In a staggering lapse of judgment, the National Research Council let its panel of hydrogen advocates publish a deeply flawed report trashing plug-in hybrids.

Last week, the NRC’s “Committee on Assessment of Resource Needs for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies,” which is stacked with hydrogen car experts and advocates, but lacks comparable experts on electric cars or batteries, published a report “Transitions to Alternative Transportation Technologies — Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles” dismissing their major competitor in the “car of the future” race. That would be like letting a Coal with Carbon Capture and Storage Committee or the Nuclear Power Committee write a report on “Transition to carbon-free power — solar energy.”

Adding to the obvious perception of bias that should have rung many alarm bells for the NRC here is the fact that the chair of this panel is Michael P. Ramage, retired Executive Vice President, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. This bio says he still is “Executive Advisor ˆ’ ExxonMobil.” Guest blogger Marc Geller runs through the lop-sided affiliations of the other Committee members below. Not surprisingly, media outlets like the Washington Post ate the story up, while never mentioning the obvious conflict of interest.

Felix Kramer at CalCars has published a detailed debunking, as has the Electrification Coalition, which notes:

  • The NRC study significantly overestimates current battery costs, placing them out of line with published research by DOE National Laboratories, exhaustive research by auto-industry analysts and current industry experience.
  • The battery and vehicle costs assumed by the NRC generate inaccurate estimates of the cost-effectiveness of PHEVs. The flawed cost assumptions also result in subsidy estimates that are widely off-mark.
  • The NRC study inappropriately discounts future reductions in battery costs derived from technological improvements and scale production

Chair Ramage states, “It is unusual for the NRC to reconvene a committee organized for one purpose to investigate another but this is an unusual committee in another way, too. I have never worked with a committee that was so dedicated, knowledgeable, and talented.” Uhhh, it is beyond “unusual” for the NRC to allow a group of advocates for pass judgment on its chief competitor! And if this committee is unusual in “another way,” it’s that it is filled will hydrogen hypers who have been consistently wrong about the prospects for and progress in commercializing hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Anybody who thinks we should listen to hydrogen car advocates on anything in the transportation arena should know that today most independent and objective observers — those outside of the hydrogen industry, outside the few remaining oil companies and car companies still pursuing the technology — understand hydrogen cars are a wildly impractical and cost-ineffective strategy for reducing carbon emissions, including our Nobel-Prize-winning Secretary of Energy. I’ll discuss that in Part 2, next week, but readers can start here:

The rest of this post is a guest debunking by electric car expert Marc Geller:

There has never been a shortage of stories in the press denigrating plug-in electric cars. Why? Because people naturally, logically believe electric cars are a good idea. Special interests who preferred to maintain the internal combustion status quo (read oil and auto companies) have long needed to plant seeds of doubt. Via paid consultants, close relationships with universities, a pliant press more apt to reprint a press release than analyze it, and print and television advertising, their negative message has been successfully imparted.

We’ve seen it all in the press: electric cars are more polluting, less safe, require too much water, will electrocute rescuers after a crash, will spontaneously explode, and will kill the blind. It takes a sustained effort to sow confusion about the obvious benefits of electric cars. Little would have been gained by attempting to expand the reach of gasoline to laptops or refrigerators, so we’ve long been subjected to a decades-long preemptive assault on electric cars. As electric cars seek a place in the market, expect more such stories.

This week saw the sophisticated version with the release of a National Academies of Sciences study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The press release headline blares: “PLUG-IN HYBRID VEHICLE COSTS LIKELY TO REMAIN HIGH, BENEFITS MODEST FOR DECADES.”

[JR: I’d note that the headline would be 10 times more accurate if you replaced “Plug-in hybrid” with “Hydrogen Fuel Cell,” the Committee’s actual area of expertise.]

The report highlights battery cost in 2010 leading to a $18,000 premium for some initial PHEVs, and suggests no lower cost is unlikely to be achieved with economies of scale. Dubious presumptions about PHEV usage lead the authors to minimize any potential petroleum and emissions reductions. Many reports, including presentations at CARB in September 2009, see much more positive indicators on the battery front, and the NRDC/EPRI study that led to the “more polluting” story cited above, actually points to significant emissions reductions with PHEVs.

If you read to the end of the press release, you find out more about who actually issued the report. It was something called the “Committee on Assessment of Resource Needs for Development of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technology & Potential Impacts of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles” within the “Board on Energy & Environmental Systems” of the “Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences” of the National Academies of Science. An odd-sounding committee, really, albeit imbued with gravitas. According to the Committee Membership Information, the group contains at least three retired oil and auto company people, academics who do hydrogen research, consultants with oil company ties and one who has served on the National Hydrogen Foundation board and another the retired Vice President Hydrogen Systems for Chevron Technology Ventures, and a venture capitalist immersed in hydrogen. And, of course, a professional environmentalist, a Union of Concerned Scientist scientist, whose work has focused on fuel cells. Stacked deck?

The message from those attempting to derail the inevitable plug on vehicles is always the same — we’ve got to keep trying everything. Nothing’s ready yet. We can’t choose winners.

“According to the report, a portfolio approach toward reducing U.S. dependence on oil is necessary for long-term success. This should include increasing the fuel efficiency of conventional vehicles and pursuing research, development, and demonstration into alternative strategies, including the use of biofuels, electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

CNN picked up the story questioning whether plug-ins pencil out for consumers.

Friday’s Washington Post editorializes ignorantly against government support of plug-ins, based it would seem solely upon this report.

One of the many smaller media outlets and blogs to pick up the story got the message. The author of Don’t Believe the Hype About the Plug-In Car, opined:

“There’s always the hope that a genius at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or another top school will invent the gizmo that changes everything. But this isn’t Hollywood and technological advances are likely to be incremental. That means no immediate miracles and oil will continue to be a vital part of the economy for the foreseeable future.”

In fact it doesn’t take a miracle. It takes a clarity of purpose, a willingness to pay attention to the science, and the guts to aim high. We need a focused effort at transportation electrification to work in parallel with the move toward renewable energy.

Whatever one thinks about the technological future of PHEVs vs. HFCVs, it is simply unconscionable that the NRC let advocates for the latter pronounce a judgment on the former. The report should be retracted.

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The battery and vehicle costs assumed by the NRC generate inaccurate estimates of the cost-effectiveness of PHEVs. The flawed cost assumptions also result in subsidy estimates that are widely off-mark.