When President Barack Obama walked into Southern California Edison’s electric-vehicle test facility in Pomona today, he visited what may be the highest concentration of electric vehicles in North America. It was a photo op, of course. The president’s goal, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, was to highlight the role of plug-in cars in creating “clean energy jobs” that will spur economic growth.

Ford Escape PHEV

Southern California Edison’s maintains a fleet of 20 Ford Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicles that have been converted to plug-ins. SCE is testing the real-world practicality of the Escape vechiles as part of a large fleet of electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

But there was much for Obama to learn in Pomona. SCE’s Electric Vehicle Technical Center has gained huge real-world experience from testing and operating a breathtaking array of hybrid and electric-drive vehicles from a dozen manufacturers. Over 10 years, the center has put more than 17 million miles on everything from now-decade-old electric Toyota RAV4 vehicles to its latest fleet of Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrids.

It’s notable that Obama didn’t visit Detroit, but Southern California. Rather than focus on a single “halo car”—the Chevrolet Volt from General Motors, or Chrysler’s array of prototypes, including its Dodge Circuit sports car—the president visited one of the few sites where dozens of people use a variety of different electric vehicles every single day.

“These cars of tomorrow require the batteries of tomorrow, I am announcing that the Department of Energy is launching a $2 billion competitive grant program under the Recovery Act that will spark the manufacturing of the batteries and parts that run these cars, build or upgrade the factories that will produce them, and in the process, create thousands of jobs right here in America. Show us that your idea or your company is best-suited to meet America’s challenges, and we will give you a chance to prove it. ”

President Barack Obama
Speaking today at the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center

Are 1 Million Plug-ins by 2015 Feasible?

During his campaign, Obama promised to put 1 million plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on US roads by 2015. That’s an aggressive goal, considering that it took a decade for global production of hybrid cars to pass the 1 million mark after the first Toyota Prius rolled off the line in 1997.

Toyota RAV4 EV

SCE and Toyota began the testing of RAV4 EVs in February 2000. The goal of SCE’s Electric Vehicle Technical Center is to obtain data on costs, maintenance, battery life, charging issues and other factors with EVs that are used continually long-term.

Most analysts expect plug-in vehicles to follow a similar growth curve to hybrids, though government subsidies and tax credits may increase the rate by compensating for the high cost of the battery packs over the first few years. But remember, Obama’s goal applies to the United States alone.

Estimates for annual production of plug-ins—all of them global—are all over the map:

  • The industry analysis firm Global Insight estimates that in 2015, 1.7 million standard hybrids will be built. But only 100,000 of that total will be plug-ins—and the number of pure electric vehicles will remain almost unnoticeable.
  • More optimistically, European parts maker Robert Bosch LLC expects that in 2015, global production of electric vehicles (plug-in hybrids and pure EVs) will total between 300,000 and 500,000 units a year.
  • General Motors said that it expects to sell 10,000 Volts in its first full year (2011) and 60,000 per year after that (2012 and beyond).
  • French carmaker Renault—which is partnered with Nissan and has perhaps the most aggressive plans for pure electric cars—expects to sell more than 100,000 EVs a year starting in 2012.

Other carmakers, especially the Germans—who have invested heavily in diesels as their “green” technology—scoff at electric vehicles, citing the enormous cost of the battery packs. Just last week, Volkswagen CEO Stefan Jacoby estimated in a speech at UCLA that it could take 35 years for the world to fully embrace electric vehicles.

Are Batteries Included?

To be fair, most analysts expect the growth rate for electric-drive vehicles to accelerate greatly between 2015 and 2020. Boston Consulting Group’s December report, The Comeback of the Electric Car? How Real, How Soon, and What Must Happen Next, offers three scenarios for 2020.

Mitsubishi iMiEV

In 2008, Mitsubishi began work with SCE to evaluate the iMiEV electric vehicle, Mitsubishi plans to sell roughly 2,000 iMiEVs in Japan in 2009, with fleet sales taking priority. There are no certain plans to bring the vehicle to the United States.

Under the one deemed most likely, oil will have risen to $150 a barrel, concern over global CO2 will be higher than today, and government policies will encourage electric vehicles and extended-range EVs—which will each take 3 percent of the market, or roughly 2 million units a year.

Many analysts suggest the world may not have the capacity to build the necessary number of large lithium ion battery packs—even if the consumer demand is there. Thus far, global lithium cell manufacturing is located almost entirely in Asia, giving Japanese, Korean, and Chinese carmakers an edge.

Legislation passed last fall will encourage the development of lithium cell manufacturing in North America. But six years is a short window in which to build up to a dozen full-scale lithium ion cell plants—which typically cost $150 million to $300 million each. Reports from Washington, DC, suggest that the president is keenly aware of the industrial infrastructure that will be necessary.

Plug-Ins at Pomona

On his tour of SCE’s Pomona, Calif. facility, Obama had a chance to see hybrid and electric vehicles that range from the egg-shaped Mitsubishi iMiEV to hybrid-electric bucket trucks, delivery vans, and other commercial equipment. Within SCE’s fleet are 20 Ford Escape Hybrid sport-utility vehicles that have been converted to plug-ins with an electric range of up to 20 miles from their lithium ion battery packs.

Those Escape Plug-Ins came from a 2007 announcement by Ford that it would work with SCE to test the real-world practicality of plug-in hybrids. A year’s worth of testing must have paid off. Last month, Ford announced that it would accelerate its electric vehicle efforts.

Ed Kjaer, SCE’s irrepressible (and occasionally profane) director of electric transportation— an EV proponent for 20 years, who has also worked in the auto industry—brings a sense of what’s practical to the sometimes uber-optimistic world of electric cars.

Kjaer believes the impact of electric-drive cars goes far beyond the immediate impact of the first few plug-ins to hit the grid. He has suggested, for instance, that when large lithium ion cells hit mass production, they may enable home energy storage systems that combine photovoltaic power generation with lithium battery storage. This would allow utilities to disconnect homes from the grid for a few hours at peak demand, letting the houses rely on their stored power until demand eased.

We’ll read the news reports tomorrow to see who Obama talked to, and how he reacted to what he saw—and drove. We suspect he liked the experience of driving on pure electricity. But there’s something he probably liked even more: The potential for hundreds of thousands of new green jobs to help reverse the worst economic downturn in generations.