Obama electric-car research total stunning compared to past R&D efforts

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president-you-know-whoTake a look at most of today's news stories about President Obama announcing that the government is awarding $2.4 billion to spur the manufacturing of electric-hybrid cars.

The headline on a New York Times piece is a good example: "Obama visits economically depressed region."

Well, do tell! That hed could've been on dozens of stories in the last year. The accounts of Obama's visit to Elkhart County, Indiana (unemployment rate: 16.8 percent) that we've found so far today are heavy on how this is supposed to be great for the economy. These accounts fall short on how this stacks up as an energy investment compared to past performance.

With the $2.4 billion in federal funds matched by the companies receiving it, we're looking at, according to the White House, "the single largest investment in advanced battery technology for hybrid and electric-drive vehicles ever made." This is huge.

To put this $2.4 billion government investment into context, consider that the Clinton and Bush administrations spent something like $1.5 billion over eight years on an ill-fated program called the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle. Taxpayers and the Big Three automakers -- which kicked in $8 billion -- funded a research program.

They did find ways to make more fuel-efficient vehicles -- but at a cost of roughly $7,000 to $10,000 per car. Because of the high pricetag, the automakers never put their newfound knowledge into effect.

What did they get for their $1 billion a year? Why, the automakers got a formidable club for fighting back any attempts in Congress to require higher fuel efficiency standards. 

As that effort wound down in 2002 and the Bush administration prepared to launch another dud of a program to develop fuel cells, here's what Bob Culver, leader of the federal-Big Three research program, told us:

We were pretty much there. The big problem is, (the new cars) weren't cost-effective.

It looks like the Bush administration went on to spend something like $500 million on the fuel-cell research before the Obama administration shut that program down, saying it would take far too long to produce actual hydrogen-fueled cars.

 So here we are today, 15 years down the road, with two programs in a roadside ditch at a cost of something like $10 billion to our society.

Imagine if that money had instead been spent on genuine basic R&D or even, as Obama seems to be doing today, to subsidize and create demand for existing clean technology. What if that $10 billion had gone into solar? Recall that we're already making big strides there. Think of the potential.

Why, instead of facing the prospect of a recalicitrant China at the climate talks to extend the Kyoto Protocol at year's end, perhaps we'd be selling the Chinese solar technology. Or wind. Or hybrids. Or fill in the blank.  

Back to today's announcement. Two points:

1)  The news media can perhaps be forgiven for not going too deeply into the substance of the news, energy-wise. Obama, Biden, Chu, Locke -- their statements are all pretty focused on jobs, opening factories and so forth.

2) The $2.4 billion for electric hybrids announced today is part of a $43 billion energy package in the 2009 stimulus bill. Does that level of spending equate to a World War II-style revamping of the economy that seems increasingly necessary to head off a climate crisis? Out of an overall stimulus package of $787 billion? Probably not. But it's a start.