Dr. Andy Frank, the "godfather" of the plug-in hybrid

Saturday afternoon at the Santa Monica Alt Car Expo was supposed to feature an all-out technology debate between everyone's favorite gasoline alternatives. Moderated by Rick Sikes, the fleet superintendent of the City of Santa Monica, the setup was billed as "Top experts representing PHEV, all electric, Hydrids, Natural Gas, Propane, Ethanol, Biodiesel, and Hydrogen will discuss and debate the latest information on these technologies." Sikes is the perfect person to lead this type of discussion because his City's fleet uses all sorts of non-gasoline energy to move around. Here's the starting lineup, the alt-fuels and their proponents:

  • Dr. Andy Frank; professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, UC Davis, speaking for Plug-in hybrids
  • Dave Barthmuss; group manager western region, Environment & Energy Communications Team, GM, speaking on "vehicle electrification" and GM's well-known "gas friendly to gas free" mantra
  • Steve Ellis; marketing manager for Alternative Fuel Programs, Honda, talking about hybrids and hydrogen, mostly
  • Joe Gershen; VP sales & marketing for Tellurian Biodiesel, speaking on, well, you can guess
  • Dean Taylor; senior program manager, Southern California Edison talking on and on
  • Lesley Brown Garland; president and CEO, Western Propane Gas Association on, surprise, propane

So, we've got the hook, the characters and the topic. How did it all shake down? Follow after the jump to find out.

Each speaker was given a few minutes to talk about their technology of choice, and took full advantage of their uninterrupted time. Andy Frank promoted his AMPLE Motion project and added that there is only one renewable energy resource: the sun (not sure what he calls wind and hydro, then). Only plug-in hybrids can foster a seamless transition to gas-free driving. According to the man called the "godfather of the plug-in hybrid," a PHEV with a 60-mile EV-only range would get about 90 percent of the energy it needs in a year from the plug and the rest from gasoline. One of Frank's more unusual ideas was to stop using oil and coal for energy, but to use them to make "high value" products like synthetic wood (!?!). This would save us from cutting down forests and the "wood" could be reprocessed into other products when it's at the end of life. I've heard a lot of odd things over the years, but I've never heard this. Frank also echoed Dan Neil's strong criticism of the latest Republican mantra. "This whole 'drill, baby, drill, business? Bullsh*t," he said.

Dave Barthmuss gave the boilerplate talk about what GM is up to these days. He said that the gas-powered generator in the Volt will "recharge the battery on the fly," but don't take that to mean it'll use gas in place of electricity out of the plug. Instead, the generator makes sure the battery charge doesn't deplete too far below the 35 percent minimum level. Following Barthmuss, Honda's Steve Ellis talked up the FCX Clarity and the new Honda Insight. Like with Barthmuss' presentation, if you're reading this, you probably know everything that Ellis said. We've heard all these OEM-style presentations before.

Joe Gershen, of Tellurian Biodiesel , gave a short presentation on biodiesel, saying he was leaving time for the Q&A. He did include a few calls to support local legislation to allow higher concentrations of biodiesel in underground tanks. Dean Taylor made some jokes about Ratan Tata being a very rich man with a small company but, considering that he also recently bought Land Rover and Jaguar, maybe it won't be a small company for much longer. Lesley Brown Garland explained how propane is being used in fleets, especially in vehicles like lawn mowers and forklifts. While regular readers might be very familiar with the information shared during the presentations, the audience in the hall was incredibly receptive to what was said. Of the six people sitting immediately next to me, five were taking handwritten notes (the sixth was a writer for GreenTechMedia).

The problem was that the seminar totally did not live up to its billing as a debate. People complain about the stilted formula of the major party political debates in the U.S., but at least at Friday's debate between Obama and McCain there was time for the candidates to talk to each other. At the AltCar event, it took 90 minutes before the lightest bit of disagreement was raised, and then we had another presentation to go (Garland on propane). By that time, we were running into the time set aside for the next seminar, so the debate simply wasn't as blistering as we'd been led to believe. In fact, the Q&A took place in another room, without amplified sound, so there was no easy way to record it. Instead, let's have the debate here in our comments section. What's your favorite gasoline alternative? Why is it better than others? What are the faults in the other options?



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