AFVI 2008: Opening speakers talk geopolitics, oil shocks and GM's lineup

Amy Myers Jaffe

Another year, another AFVI convention. At last year's show, which took place in Anaheim, California, we learned about Connaught's Type-D Hybrid, the Naro concept vehicle, and took a Smart Brabus diesel for a quick spin. The 2008 Alternative Fuels & Vehicles National Conference and Expo officially kicked off in Las Vegas this morning. Annalloyd Thomason, AFVI's executive director, gave the opening remarks and introduced the four people who would set the stage for the week. The speakers lined up for the opening session were not what I would consider the usual suspects for an industry conference like this; they were just a little bit more aware of issues outside the technical focus that sometimes defines these sorts of events.

Amy Myers Jaffe, for example, put the conference's topic into a global perspective. Myers Jaffe wears a lot of hats, but the two most pertinent for the AFVI crowd were her positions as associate director of the Rice University energy program and a strategic adviser to the American Automobile Association. Her speech focused on political instability and conflicts around the world and the challenges they bring to energy use. The tight oil market means that what she called small events (e.g., oil workers who go on strike in Nigeria - something that happened in the 1980s with out a real ripple) can now have a big, big effect on the world market. The new definition of energy security means having options in all of our energy sectors, transportation included, she said. Listen to her 15-minute keynote address:

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Much more after the jump.

Rich Kassel

Rich Kassel, the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, brought the same sort of wide-ranging viewpoint to the regulatory landscape in the U.S. A man after my own heart, he began his talk by talking about how he used to bike to work in his home of New York City, and how there's a peacefulness riding through Central Park and the nastiness of then pedaling behind diesel-powered buses. In 19995, the NRDC ran ads on New York City buses that read, "Standing behind this bus can be more dangerous that standing in front of it" in an effort to reduce diesel pollution in the city. Kassel said that this public statement played a big role in shifting city fleet vehicles from diesel to natural gas power and, for the vehicles that continued to burn diesel, added diesel particular filters to the exhaust system. Kassel is confident that the recent CARB ZEV mandate change will, in fact, reach its goal to make plug-in hybrids more common, nearly 60,000 by 2014.

Kassel ended his address with a challenge to attendees to focus on making biofuels that are truly sustainable - corn ethanol and rain forest biodiesel don't meet anyone's definition of sustainable, he said - by rethinking agricultural policies around the world and realizing that biofuels themselves can be a part of the solution. Biofuels that come from waste streams, he said, need to be prioritized over biofuels that use crops, for example.

Legislation needs to be updated to deal with new technology. For example, a vehicle's MPG rating is often used as a proxy for efficiency, but this isn't a totally fair way to define actual efficiency, he said. A natural gas vehicle that gets lower MPG than a similar gas-fueled vehicle might emit fewer greenhouse gases over the lifetime of the vehicle, and legislation needs to take this into account. "There is no way we can stabilize our climate without transportation doing its fair share," he said.

Play Kassel's 20-minute address:

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Dr. Robert Hirsch

Which brings us to Dr. Robert Hirsch. Hirsch holds 14 patents and authored a report that was up on the DOE, Thomason joked, until someone from the DOE actually read it and took it down (this was back in 2005). Hirsch is senior energy adviser to Management Information Services inc.

Hirsch's general theme was that in 2050, things will look pretty good as far as the world's energy use goes. Getting there? Heh, that's another story. Discovering one barrel of oil for each three we use (on average, according to some estimates), peak oil, and rising oil prices are all going to make the next four decades pretty tough, Hirsch suggested. According to his numbers, world oil production has plateaued for the last few years, but even though oil production is roughly the same now as it was in 2004, prices are much higher thanks to that pesky increased demand, and another oil shock is likely. Unlike the previous ones, though, the next oil shock will likely be psychological, but the results will be the same. Hirsch said he expects people to reaction like they did in 1973 and 1979: by hoarding, dealing with a recession, panicing, etc. In other words, the challenge ahead is a huge one.

Even with all of this realistic doom, Hirsche has some good news for the conference attendees. Oil shortages are a liquid problem, he said, not an energy problem. As everyone involved in the Alternative Fuels and Vehicles Institute obviously knows, there are alternative energy sources for vehicles. Studies that Hirsch has done show that, while there might be a lot of delay in getting started on making these alternatives viable options for end users, once the ball gets rolling, things happen quickly.

Listen to Hirsch (23 min):

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Before Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development and strategic planning, gave the closing speech of the morning session, Thomason presented him with the AFVI's Industry Pioneer Award 2008.

It's a sign of how often we hear GM representatives speak about the company's overall alternative powertrain goals that I feel I could give one of their presentations myself. I'm not criticizing GM for having a message and sticking to it - especially since the message is that we need energy diversity in the transportation sector, something that I think we can all agree on - I'm just saying that any regular AutoblogGreen reader has heard most of what Burns repeated today before. He talked about cylinder deactivation, HCCI, and GM's overall "gas friendly to gas free" strategy. By using off-peak charging for vehicles, GM figures we could fuel 43 percent of the U.S. fleet for a 30 mile daily drive. GM's currently available products, if you don't already know, are hybrids and felxfuel vehicles. The cellulosic ethanol investments in Coskata and Mascoma also got some screen time. One of the few things that I hadn't seen before was an ad the Tahoe Hybrid that read, "The hybrid taken to its logical extreme." Hm. He also described the Volt battery in a new say, saying it is about the size of an offensive lineman: 6'3" and 350 pounds.

Listen to Burns for yourself (21 min):

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We're looking forward to the rest of this show - there is a big show floor full of exhibits, lots of industry movers and shakers, and, well, the frightening reality of Vegas (more on that later).

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