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March 30, 2012

Let's Focus on Plug-In Cars

Ford Focus

There's a new kid in town.

The Ford Focus Electric, the newest all-electric released by a major auto company rolled into the 10th annual Cleantech Forum in San Francisco on Wednesday, a conference put on by the Cleantech Group. The Focus goes into production next month and will be available in New York, New Jersey, and California.

The Focus will soon join the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla's Model S as plug-in cars available on the lot. The BMW's Active-E, the Mitsubishi i, and Toyota's Plug-in Prius are to follow. Ford also is getting ready for its plug-in hybrid Fusion Energi and the C-Max hybrid. 

"We are bullish on this as a way to meet our CO2 commitment," said Mike Tinskey, Ford's Associate Global Director, who added that the EV race is "a marathon, not a sprint." The company wants these new models to represent up to 20 percent of global production by 2020, and plans to hire thousands of engineers and workers to meet its goals. 

All of these cars mark a new beginning for the fuel economy. Last summer, the Obama administration introduced carbon pollution standards of 54.5 mpg by 2025, which will save tens of billions of dollars, drastically reduce our oil dependency, and have the effect of shutting down 72 dirty coal plants for a year. These standards will also push automakers to manufacture more EVs and hybrids to meet these requirements and help wean the country off oil.

Ford Focus

"EVs are part of the solution," Tinskey told me. "Granted, there are families of six or seven that will need bigger cars. But for everyday transportation, these are the cars that are going to be where we start with addressing this issue."

Plug-ins aren't only innovative -- they are increasingly economical. While many EV models are more expensive upfront, fueling EVs is much less costly, and this fueling price gap grows by the day as gas prices rise. In comparison, it might cost one dollar for an EV owner to travel 100 miles, depending on when and where the car's charged.

"A dollar to go 100 miles is really cheap. For a gas car, 100 miles at 30 mpg is about three-and-a-third dollars a gallon. It's like $15 to go 100 miles. The benefits of driving electric are only going to grow" as gas prices rise, Tinskey said.

Even on today's electricity sources, EVs are cleaner than conventional vehicles. As the grid shifts to cleaner sources of power, EVs will become even cleaner to operate.

Ford Focus

Not only that, EVs are a whole lot of fun. I chatted with Tinskey while standing next to three Focus Electrics that Ford employees were using to give passers-by quick joyrides down Market Street. Recognizing that getting the word out will be paramount, Ford will host "awareness campaigns" in certain cities in the coming months that will invite the public to try out these cars.

The Cleantech Forum on Wednesday also featured SunPower, which has partnered with Ford to offer discounted residential solar systems designed to charge plug-in vehicles. Representatives from other greentech companies like ECOtality, Coulomb, and ABB, discussed partnerships as a strategy that will develop car charging infrastructure, social networking and app technology, and data gathering for utilities. These technologies someday will collaborate into what the Cleantech Group calls "an EV ecosystem."

Visit the Sierra Club's Go Electric Campaign.

-- article and images by Brian Foley

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