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Changing Reality Reflected in President Obama's State of the Union Address

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Changing Reality Reflected in President Obama's State of the Union Address

When the President of the United States delivers the state of the union address to Congress, he customarily charts a forward-looking course of action. Sometimes, however, it’s useful to take a look back to see how a policy emphasis can change.

Two years ago, for example, President Obama in his address to Congress on January 25, 2011, said, “With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

What the President said in 2011 was part of the Administration’s aggressive plan to develop new drive train technologies, including lithium batteries to make plug-in hybrid and all electric vehicles part of the transportation mainstream by 2015. However, with only two years to go on the pledge President Obama made in 2011, the US is nowhere near the goal of having a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

This year, the President’s state of the union address on February 12, 2013 reflected that reality. He didn’t even mention plug-ins, all electric vehicles or even lithium batteries. Instead, he took a much broader approach:

“I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research a

nd technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”

He also shifted his focus onto the issue climate change, specifically cutting carbon emissions from utility and industrial boiler installations using coal and other fossil fuels with high carbon content.

“The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth,” the President said, adding, “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

That was a clear signal that he would direct the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to proceed with a new rule limiting emissions from new power plants to 1,000 lbs. CO₂ equivalent/MWh. That, in turn, would be a prelude to a much more controversial plan to extend that limit to existing power plants.

But what about the goal of putting more clean vehicles on the road? The road has proven to be more complex with several embarrassments along the way. For example, the federal government’s financial support of lithium ventures has had mixed results. Last week the Department of Energy’s inspector general issued a report highly critical of one recipient, LG Chem, which received a $151 million grant to support lithium battery cell production at a facility in Holland, Michigan. The plant has yet to make any cells that can be used in vehicles to be sold to the public.

This doesn’t mean that progress toward the goal of moderating the use of petroleum in vehicles hasn’t been made. There has been progress, just not the sort one might have envisioned several years ago.

While sales of plug-ins and all electric vehicles have not met expectations, sales of mild hybrids and micro hybrids – a category that includes stop-starts – continue to do very well. It is this category that, in large measure, uses lead-acid batteries, notably AGMs produced in the US by companies that are members of the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium (ALABC).At a hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on February 13, one day after President Obama’s state of the union address, the administrator of the US Energy Information Administration, Adam Sieminski, predicted an impressive growth of mild hybrids in the coming years. He displayed the following chart:


The use of improved batteries – such as those developed by the lead-acid industry – are part of the story, along with turbo charging, start-stop technology and an anticipated greater use of natural gas (either compressed or liquefied).

Of course, none of this means that DOE is likely to abandon lithium research. Nor does it mean that DOE hasn’t paid any attention at all to innovations by the lead-acid battery industry. DOE is aware of lead-acid and has provided some modest support for battery testing.

What is important to note, however, is that the market is providing consumers with more of the cleaner vehicles they want, even if the process of producing the vehicles is not turning out as originally expected. The President’s state of the union speech acknowledged that changing reality.