“We Can Get Completely Off Oil in 15 Years”
Jeff Wilson has a plan: “We can free the United States of its dependency on oil, not just foreign oil, in 15 years.”
Yeah, sure. This guy’s dreaming. I thought, as I began to read his book, The Manhattan Project 2009. I’ve heard pie-in-the-sky schemes before.
Then I read his book, and I was convinced. My next thoughts were, Everybody needs to read this book. It’s all here, in a step-by-step program. He’s even written legislative proposals for congressmen. It’s all here, and it is possible. I wanted to talk to this guy.
So, Julia and I called him. We caught up with him in his office near Minneapolis.
BPGL: In 2008, you authored The Manhattan Project 2009, which describes a step-by-step process for the U.S. to escape our dependence on oil. How did you get interested in this topic?
WILSON: I’ve always had an interest in energy-related topics. I have degrees in physics, math, and electrical engineering.
I wanted to know the real situation with oil and our real possibilities for moving into alternative energy. There’s no consistent story about our oil use. Our government doesn’t have a consistent story; the media doesn’t have a consistent story. I delved into the research to answer the question for myself. What I found was so interesting that I felt compelled to share it.
I don’t see myself as a natural writer. My only virtue is that I have no patience for anything other than people getting straight to the point.
BPGL: How did you come up with the title?
WILSON: “The Manhattan Project” is a term I heard bubbling up here and there in the discussion about energy. The general public is way ahead of our federal government. The people know we need to get something done and are working to get to it. State and local governments are working toward it.
Every once in a while in America, we have something really important come up for which we need action right now, no ifs, ands, or butts. In the Manhattan Project and the Apollo missions, we stepped up to the plate and accomplished the impossible in a very short time. That’s what needs to happen now.
BPGL: How are we going to pay to create the infrastructure necessary to recharge electric cars?
WILSON: In the book, I propose government subsidies to promote the manufacture and purchase of electric cars. This will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But keep in mind that, in 2008, we spent at least a trillion dollars more for the oil we used (including the price of oil and the cost of protecting our oil interests) than we did in 1998, just 10 years before. And we aren’t using substantially more oil now than we did then. The cost of using oil kept rising. It has become so hideously expensive that we can afford to make a very major investment in getting ourselves off of oil and still come out ahead financially.
BPGL: You’re working against a number of huge lobbying entities — the internal combustion auto industry, oil companies. How will you combat that?
A couple of entrepreneurs started a business software company. They sold out to SAP software, and walked away with $400 million. One of them, Shai Agassi, says he realized then that he had enough money. He asked himself, What can I do with the rest of my life? He settled on a cause: getting us off of fossil fuels. So, he started a company called Better Place. Its main focus is how to most efficiently move the world to electric cars.
To do this, we need to put a number of things in place, most particularly, the infrastructure. This means we need charging stations everywhere: at businesses for their employees, in shopping centers for customers, and at home. He’s also working with car companies Nissan and Renault to help design the necessary support systems.
Better Place’s first client was Israel, a country that feels much more threatened by dependency on foreign oil than we do.
Its second customer was Denmark. By the end of 2007, Denmark was getting 20 percent of its electricity supplied by wind. Their problem was that they had so much wind energy installed, if it was blowing during a period of low demand, such as at night, they had far more electricity than they had customers to buy it. They were giving up some return on investment on their wind generators because they had too much energy. They saw electric cars as an opportunity to use the electricity during non-peak hours, nighttime. Everyone wins.
Better Place’s third customers were the cities San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. They all made commitments to make the Bay Area compatible to electric cars. They are planning to spend up to $1 billion to construct charging stations in the next few years
Better Place has now signed contracts with the state of Hawaii as well as a large electric company in Australia. There is a list of other pending contracts, too. Their business is exploding. And all this is happening without governmental support or, rather, in spite of it.
I see Better Place as the next Microsoft. The big companies of the late 1900s related to computers. In the new century, alternative energy and electric cars will be the boom industries. Better Place is growing so fast, I’m not sure how they’ll keep up with it.
BPGL: Does your book deal with anything about home energy use?
WILSON: No, not really. Home energy use is not so dependent on oil. Heat and electricity for homes come mostly from natural gas, uranium, and coal, and we have at least 20 years before those supplies will get tight.
My book is different from most green-related books on the market. Mine focuses on oil and getting us off oil. Seventy percent of oil in the US is imported. Worldwide, we’re using oil at two times the rate at which we’re discovering new oil. But here in the United States, we’re using oil at four times the rate at which we’re discovering new domestic oil. The oil supplies are tight and getting tighter. We have an immediate crisis with oil.
BPGL: We’re looking at a huge paradigm change. The people are changing much faster than the government does. How can we push the government?
WILSON: The other point that drove the title and format of the book is that I not only saw the general populace ahead of the government, I saw them concluding that nothing will happen with the federal government before the current administration is out. Everybody is hoping that something major will happen with the new administration.
In the book, I provided all the information needed to create a proposed energy policy. In fact, the second chapter is a proposed legislative agenda of bills that need to be passed daily, as soon as the new president takes office.
BPGL: Who is helping you push this?
WILSON: I’ve sent the book to Shai Agassi, to my governor, and to mayors in cities in California, who are pushing electric cars. I’ve done radio interviews and articles on a few websites. I’m hoping for that big break, but don’t know where that might come from.
BPGL: Where do you see home energy use in the future?
WILSON: I mention this in the book, in my legislative proposal for the Smart Grid. In every backyard, you’ll have a 100 kW battery buried there, which can run an average house for three days. The Smart Grid will solve the problem that we currently have with intermittent energy from wind and solar. We need a way to even out the general electrical demand. Ultimately, that means storage at individual homes.
This is how I see the future: At your home, you’ll generate whatever electricity you can with solar panels. You’ll have an Internet connection between your battery charger, an energy controller, and the electric company. You’ll be able to get the price of a kW at any given moment. Then you can buy when it’s low, and sell to the grid when the price is high. In some cases, you might make money. In the big scheme, it evens out the electrical demand for the grid, and makes it so you run your home on the lowest price of electricity.
BPGL: I see giving the public access to the grid info as counter-intuitive to the way the current power companies see the grid. They see it as “their grid.” They don’t want the public to know the price at which they buy and sell electric power. Won’t that be difficult for them to approve?
WILSON: The only interface between the electric company and the general public will be, “What’s the price at any given moment?” They’ll change the price up and down with supply and demand.
Today, the electric companies are the power generators, but over the next 20 years, they’ll shift to simply being power brokers.
BPGL: They have to start improving the grid now.
WILSON: We’re moving from 500 and 1,000 MW power plants, to 10 MW wind farms. Instead of a few huge generators, you’ll have a large number of small generators.
Look at XCEL Energy, one of the biggest power suppliers. More than half of the wind energy that they bring on line, they purchase from independent wind farmers. Power companies will have to switch to purchasing power from independent generators.
Just in the last few days, I read about Xcel Energy’s experiment with a 7 MW-hour battery at a wind farm. That would supply about 200 homes with a full day of electricity. They are installing it and starting to play with it. Right now, the batteries are too expensive to be practical, but they’re getting ahead of the curve. The ones they’re using (sodium/sulfur), are about the size of two semi trailers.
Indianapolis Power and Light is experimenting with a 1 MW lithium battery for dealing with peak handling.
Minnesota and Iowa are the two biggest states for in-state wind generation. Both get 7% of their in-state generated power from wind. That’s developing into a healthy competition.
BPGL: We’ve been reading about car companies doing research on lithium and problems with the electrical flow. When you have that much power in a small space, there is risk.
WILSON: Altair Nanotechnologies makes a battery that, in my mind, is way ahead of all the others. They got rid of the polymer electrolytes that have been in most lithium batteries. Their battery is unusually safe. They’ve shot a bullet into it, dropped it till it bursts, and nothing happens. The brand name is Nanosafe.
The Nanosafe battery can do 10,000 or 12,000 discharge cycles — which is 10 times as much as a typical lithium battery — before it starts to get weak. And, it can be charged quickly.
The first electric car being made with it is from Phoenix Motorcars in San Bernardino, California. It can be charged in as little as 10 minutes. There will be a problem getting that much power from the electric company for 10 minutes, but at least the car and battery have that ability. In fact, Altair claims its batteries can be charged to 80% in 60 seconds. It’s a game-changer in battery technologies.
This kind of battery technology makes long-distance travel possible. The first-generation Phoenix cars go 120 miles on a charge. The second-generation goes 250 miles. You can charge it in 10 minutes, then go another 250 miles. Now, you’ve answered the problem of long distance travel with the electric car.
I see a number of companies advancing in technology so fast that it’s mind boggling to me. A couple of other battery companies are being forced down that path. Warren Buffett just bought 10% of BYD in China for a quarter of a billion dollars. They’ve started shipping an electric car. Their battery can quick-charge in 30 minutes. This one came out of nowhere. Warren Buffet called that one correctly. They’re taking on the world. They can go 100 km without recharging.
Another quick-charge battery is the one in the Subaru test car. It charges 80% in 15 minutes. I’m not sure who supplies their batteries.
Do you see my earlier point? I’m surprised at how quickly this stuff is moving even with our government standing in the way.
BPGL: So, the conclusion here is that your legislation is key?
WILSON: Yes. I guess the point I was making was, it’s moving surprisingly fast without the legislation, but let’s get the legislation in place and go full force.
BPGL: With bailouts from our government for the automakers, wouldn’t this be a good time to force them to change their behavior with your legislation?
WILSON: I see the current issue of the Big 3 as being more an issue of survival. They had their chance a few years ago with the General Motors EV-1 that they were shipping into California. They let that drop. Really, whether most of the Big 3 stays in business or not doesn’t have much bearing on the advancement of this technology.
In my book, I propose providing subsidies directly to the consumer to purchase electric cars. Let the customer decide who’s offering the best products. There are plenty of other companies who will step up to the plate.
The cool thing about green collar jobs is, we’re not just making an excuse to give someone a paycheck. These paychecks will be paid back many times over with the money we save on energy.
BPGL: What do you plan to write in the future?
WILSON: I can’t say that I see that far ahead. What I have in mind is to do frequent updates to the book. I’ll put out a new addition about every six months.
BPGL: How long did it take you to write the book?
WILSON: My first book was How Much Energy Does My Car Use? I finished that one in April or May of 2008. That’s when I decided to write the second book. I submitted the finished manuscript around Labor Day.
It was a labor of love. I love this technology. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed running the numbers on this stuff. I get real excited about it. We’re about to move into a very interesting future.
BPGL: One last question. If you could speak directly to Mr. Obama, what would you say?
WILSON: Our government showed us a couple months ago that, if they consider something to be important and urgent, they can come up with a trillion dollars over a weekend.
The fact that it’s a trillion isn’t a shame. But the trillion should go into something that will pay back big. If you put a trillion dollars into converting to alternative energy, that would have huge payback for us, our children, and our grandchildren.
BPGL: Anything else?
WILSON: The bad news is that the oil supply is an immediate crisis. The good news is that we can get completely off oil in 15 years, if we make the commitment. We can move ourselves into a new world with a never-ending supply of cheap, clean energy.
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