CALSTART Facilitates Commercialization of Clean Transportation Technology Breakthroughs
The use of the automobile remains the world's most daunting obstacle in the fight to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Lofty goals for emissions reductions will mean nothing if significant advances in clean transportation technology don't emerge soon. Luckily, WESTSTART/ CALSTART exists to encourage those breakthroughs. VerdeXchange News recently spoke with CALSTART President and CEO John Boesel, who shared his organization's insights into the most promising advancements made in clean tech's most critical sector.
What is WestStart/CALSTART 's core mission? Does it still revolve around encouraging clean transportation technologies? If so, how has increased interest in fuel economy impacted your work?
It's interesting because the mission hasn't changed that much since our inception. From the get-go, we've been committed to the development and growth of the clean transportation technologies industry. Our belief has always been that if we grow this industry, there will be numerous benefits, including energy security, improved air quality, a reduced chance for global warming, and great new economic opportunities for people. That's been our mission, and in the last three or four years, the industry has really started to take off. But we're just at the beginning.
What indices and benchmarks does CALSTART use to measure progress and advancement in clean transportation?
Just in terms of the number of advanced vehicles now available for sale, we're now starting to see significant penetration by hybrids. And we're starting to see greater availability of and acceptance of E85 flex fuel vehicles. We're also starting to see some penetration of alternative fuels into the gasoline and diesel market share. But as like I say, we're just at the beginning, and a lot more work needs to be done to accomplish our mission.
What companies and technologies is CALSTART currently incubating? How many technologies are involved with your incubator?
We now have a 145-member company from across the board: biofuels, natural gas, hydrogen, hybrids, fuel cells, and electric vehicles. We are functioning as a virtual incubator, where we provide services to companies and try to help them to be successful in the marketplace.
Are their biofuel technologies in your CALSTART portfolio?
Right now, we're most active in E85—that's 85 percent ethanol— and also trying to get a biomethane market developed here in California. Biomethane is a renewable form of methane—natural gas is the fossil form of methane. We've lead a couple of trade missions over to Sweden where they have a very impressive biomethane program, and we're trying to build off that Swedish experience and get that industry going here in California. On the ethanol side, we're very focused on trying to develop the E85 market. We received a DOE grant to build out 15 E85 stations, and we're working to steer significant new funding to the growth of the biofuels infrastructure in California. We also see great opportunities for California companies and universities to work together to develop the next generation of biofuels.
What corporate partners does CALSTART have for those two programs?
There are numerous Swedish companies that have the technology for the conversion of biomethane. We're also working closely with the Western United Dairymen who represent the dairy industry in the state. Both PG&E and So. Cal. Gas are very interested and looking at that technology and fuel. On ethanol, we've been working with Pacific Ethanol and VeraSun. On our proposal, we had General Motors, and we were the only team in this nationwide competition that they partnered with, because they felt it was most important to try to crack the California market.
For a long time, CALSTART has been involved in electric vehicles. What is the status and promise of that research?
We're seeing a reemergence of electric vehicle companies. The battery technology has improved. I think there are some new, innovative approaches to manufacturing cars. So I'm pretty excited by what I'm seeing in that space. Tesla has a very interesting strategy, and they are having luck in selling their highend car. TH!NK, which is on its third or fourth life, recently secured about $50 million in investment capital. They are getting serious about developing a car that will initially focus for the European market, but they would also like to bring that car to the U.S. market eventually.
What characterizes your work with hydrogen? And who are your partners on those projects?
We have been primarily focused on the fleet market for hydrogen. We think there are some lessons that can be learned from the natural gas vehicle industry, which can then be applied to the hydrogen industry. In particular, we have really been focused on the bus market. When you put hydrogen in buses, you overcome two major barriers facing hydrogen use in the passenger car market. One is the storage of the hydrogen. With buses, you can put the cylinders on top of the roof, and people really don't care. The other one is the widespread availability of refueling stations. With a bus operating on a fixed route, you only need one station. We were successful in getting $49 million into the federal Transportation Reauthorization Bill, which created a research and development administration program for fuel cell buses. We have also been successful in competing for and securing $12 million of that federal funding for fuel cell bus projects here in California. I think California has been and will continue to be the leader in fuel cell bus technology. At the same time, I'm very impressed with what Honda, in particular, is doing with fuel cells. That technology still may be several years away, but I think it does hold promise, and it should be part of the investment portfolio.
The Japanese, Canadians, and Germans are in these markets for efficient fuels. What are they doing with technologies in their countries in relation to what the U.S. and CALSTART are doing?
Japan and Europe have been setting some very high standards, which has forced their industries to adapt the technology and develop new technologies to meet those standards. Their industries have benefited on a global basis from having tough standards set by their governments. I also see the governments in Europe and Japan as being more supportive of industry and able and willing to provide research, development, and demonstration funding, perhaps more so than here in the U.S. Canada has been a leader in this area. We have two Canadian companies on our board of directors. New Flyer Industries has been a real leader in clean fuel buses, and Westport has been a real leader in terms of developing high efficiency natural gas and hydrogen engines. We gave CumminsWestport a Blue Sky award this year and are very impressed with the work that they've been doing. The U.S. needs to work hard to try to keep up and be a leader in the emerging global clean transportation technologies industry.
You've obviously been following, tracking, and probably benefiting from the regulations and legislation passed in California, and watching and tracking the reactions in Washington, both in the executive and legislative branches. Is regulation a driver of change for CALSTART member companies? What's your sense of the current regulatory climate in California and the nation ?
California has continued to lead the nation in terms of energy and climate policy. Things are moving much more slowly in Washington. California is creating a sub-national program. There are now 12 or 13 states who have adopted similar regulations and programs to cut smog and greenhouse gas emissions. On a population basis, almost 30 or 40 percent of the nation has adopted California's rules. People really look to California for leadership. There are numerous partnership agreements that our governor has formed with other nations, and I think we'll continue to see more of that. That's why we're continuing to stay focused on the development of good policy here in California, while certainly offering our thoughts and advice to our congressional delegation, as well.
If you were writing bullet points to Senator Bingaman or House members on the Ways and Means Committee, like Congressman Blumenauer or Congressman Schiff, what would you be advising them to put into new legislation that would create incentives for the fuels and renewables that CALSTART has been incubating?
The technology is ahead of the policy. We need stronger policies so that stronger signals are sent to the consumers that we need to change the way that we use our transportation energy. I would say, be aggressive; don't be cautious. The technology will easily meet the requirements of your policy.
You've agreed to participate in the GreenXchange Xpo conference in December. What do buyers and sellers of energy for their portfolios, especially in the transportation field, need to be aware of in order to make intelligent decisions going forward about what they should acquire or buy into?
Number one, we need to understand that this is a very fast-changing market. The technology is changing, and the regulations are changing, so it's very important to stay on top of the latest changes. It's also important to realize that we're heading into an era where there will be many different options, and we won't be operating in a mono-fuel system much longer. We're heading into an era where there will be a diversity of fuels, and one size won't fit all. Given the fleet's duty cycle or the needs of the buyers, there will be different answers. The buyers need to be plugged into the best information sources to help figure out the best choices. There are lots of appealing choices out there, but you really need to be on top of the latest changes and developments.
If we have another conversation a year from now, what are we likely to be talking about?
I think we'll be talking about the same subjects, but I'd like to think that we'll be considerably further down the road— that there will be more hybrid products available, that there will be more of an established biofuel infrastructure, and that we'll see some more advanced natural gas vehicle product out there. Hopefully, we'll even be seeing some significantly improved internal combustion engines. That may be the best solution in the near term—to get gasoline-powered engines that are 50-100 percent more efficient than the ones that we have out there today. It's technically possible for that to occur, but it won't happen unless we have much stronger public policy.