A Solar Star Recedes for Now, Plus More EV News

This Outlet blog post offers RMI perspective on energy topics in the news this week. First is U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ decision to leave Congress and the solar energy legacy she leaves.

We also discuss the latest on electric vehicles, which will make headlines this week on both coasts.

Congress Loses a Bright Light—and a Solar Supporter

Giffords’ moving You Tube video released Sunday announcing her resignation from Congress included a subtle plug for solar energy from the Arizona congresswoman, who in October was named the federal government’s top solar champion by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“I know on the issues we fought for, we can change things for the better,” Giffords says in her announcement, listing jobs first among those issues as the video shows installation of solar panels.

Giffords in 2009 won U.S. House approval of the Solar Technology Roadmap Act. Even though the bill died in the Senate, Giffords’ congressional website says it was the foundation for the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative—which was strongly influenced by RMI’s Balance of System charrette held in June 2010.

Today, RMI is partnering with the DOE on the SunShot initiative and the solar industry to accelerate solar photovoltaic deployment across the U.S. The work is focused on reducing BOS costs and removing procedural inefficiencies to make it easier and cheaper for homeowners and businesses alike to go solar. RMI analyst Jesse Morris says the work initiated by Giffords and carried on by the DOE is of increasing importance as more and more communities embrace solar in order to reduce electricity costs, create jobs and reduce emissions.

Even after a gunman shot and gravely wounded Giffords during a constituent meeting in January 2011, her office continued vigorous solar advocacy, holding regular “Solar 101” sessions for Arizona residents and businesses and pushing for Tucson to be the nation’s solar capital. A visit to Giffords’ solar page shows her similarity of thought with RMI about solar’s potential to help the economy, create jobs, boost national security and aid the environment.

Her legacy in the solar arena may not be complete. In the video, Giffords promises to return to fight for her causes after she gets stronger.

EV Discussions on Horizon

Federal regulators on Friday ended their investigation of battery fires prompted by lab tests on the Chevrolet Volt. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said it “remains unaware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in a battery-related fire involving the Chevy Volt or any other electric vehicle. NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles show great promise as a safe and fuel-efficient option for American drivers.”

(RMI alumnus and lithium-ion battery pioneer John Waters forecast this outcome in a guest Outlet essay back in November.)

You might think NHTSA’s finding would help end the flawed narrative about the Volt fires and EVs in general. Maybe it will. But congressional critics of General Motors’ federal bailout have summoned GM CEO Dan Akerson to testify Wednesday at a hearing where committee members will accuse NHTSA of a coverup. A letter from the committee to NHTSA asked why the agency “deliberately suppressed public knowledge of the safety risk posed by the Chevrolet Volt.”

Lost in this sniping is the ability of electric vehicles to fight America’s crippling oil dependence, as outlined in RMI’s Reinventing Fire roadmap to a transportation system free of fossil fuels by 2050.

A big step in that direction could come Thursday in California, where the state Air Resources Board will consider Advanced Clean Car rules. Regulators say the rules, among other things, would lead to 1.4 million zero-emission vehicles on the road in California by 2025. Rules in California, because the state accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. new vehicle sales, carry great importance as automakers decide what to produce.

Read more about the CARB meeting and the proposed rule later this week on Outlet.