The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes – Silicon Valley: The New Detroit?

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blink chargerRichard Lowenthal is CEO of charging company, Coulomb Technologies. Photo: Andrea Kissack

Detroit has been at the center of the country’s auto industry ever since Henry Ford rolled his first Model T off the assembly line in 1908. But as hard times have fallen on America’s Rust Belt, there is a new region hoping to give Detroit a run for its money. Amidst start-up companies and corporate office parks, clean tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are plugging into an emerging electric car industry. Andrea Kissack visited several local EV companies.

Tesla Motors

The battery factory of Tesla Motors in Palo Alto is the cleanest factory I’ve ever seen. It looks more like a sterile biotech lab. J.B. Straubel is taking me on a tour. He’s the Chief Technical Officer and one of Tesla’s founders.

With its Roadster sports car, which does 0 to 60 in less than four seconds, the company has made electric cars seem…sexy. A range of more than 200 miles has made Tesla’s batteries the bench mark for electric vehicles. But it all comes at a price. A stripped down Tesla Roadster starts at 109,000 dollars. Straubel points out a big black box at a work station in front of us. It’s one of Tesla’s battery packs. “It’s not very exciting on the outside, but that’s what powers the Roadster. It's about 1,000 pounds,” says Straubel. As we dodge an approaching forklift, Straubel makes sure to point out that Tesla is not only building battery packs for its own cars but selling them worldwide.

teslaTesla Headquarters in Palo Alto. Photo Credit, Andrea Kissack

Tesla Motors has just taken over the shuttered NUMMI auto plant in Fremont where it will build it’s next EV. The cheaper, longer range Model S Sedan is a four door car with a range of up to 300 miles and a price tag of about 60,000. In the midst of high unemployment in Silicon Valley, the company is hiring. Hoping to expand from 800 to 2000 employees over the next two years. Telsa has received an infusion of cash from its CEO and co-founder, Elon Musk. Musk made his fortune helping to start Pay Pal. Other companies are also chipping in, including Google.

Google

I met up with Dan Reicher, one of the leaders of Google’s Green Energy Team, at the company’s EV charging docks on the sprawling Google campus in Mountain View. "We think EVs offer so many advantages in terms of environment economy and security that we though we should put some of our investor dollars into those kinds of companies,” says Reicher. Reicher is surrounded by eight Priuses that the company has converted after market into plug-ins. The fleet is used by employees to carpool to work.

Hacking hybrid Priuses and charging them under a solar carport is the kind of garage startup mentality that has given Silicon Valley its innovator reputation. “What’s exciting here at Google is just very smart engineers who say, we can do that. You got a problem? We’ll figure out a way to solve it. You got an opportunity? We’ll engineer a way to take advantage of it,” Reicher says.

Charging Companies

It’s not just venture capital that’s flowing into EV related companies. The Obama Administration is spending 2.4 billion dollars to try to revitalize the industry. The money is going toward research to make longer lasting, cheaper batteries as well as into creating a charging infrastructure. Jonathan Read is CEO of ECOtality. The company has received 100-million dollars in stimulus funds and is giving away its smart chargers in some cities in an effort to invigorate the market. Read just moved his company from Arizona to San Francisco to be closer to the action. He tells me, “These are not your father’s chargers.” Read says his sleek, black and white chargers, named “Blink,” are quite intelligent. “They have all the telecommunications capability in them. And all of this is based on a big network of chargers being interconnected talking to each other and being able to talk to the utilities,” says Read. Like other EV-related businesses, including charging companies Coulomb and The Better Place, ECOtality is hiring. The company has plans to add 1,200 jobs over the next year.

Silicon Valley Culture

There are, of course, areas outside of Silicon Valley working on the electric car including advanced battery research out of Boston and Wisconsin. Nissan’s Leaf will be manufactured in Tennessee and the Chevy Volt will be built in Michigan. But the new automobile of the 21st century is likely to benefit from the culture of Silicon Valley, where people are used to taking a chip, a cell, an idea and working on it until it becomes something big.

teslaWithin these regions, the top selling electric and plug in hybrid sales are coming from: China, Japan, France, Germany, U.S.

Listen to Silicon Valley: The New Detroit? radio report.


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About the Author ()

Andrea is KQED's Senior Science Editor . Andrea was born in Los Angeles and discovered radio news through listening to her college radio station. With a curious mind and a love for telling stories, she set off for Tampa where she landed her first job as a reporter for Florida Public Radio. After three years reporting in an unbearably humid climate and a brief stint as a miscast opera reporter, Andrea returned to L.A. to work for public radio, then for television news and finally as a reporter for CBS radio. Andrea has been at KQED for over twelve years, working first as a producer for Forum, and then as the senior producer for The California Report. She is now KQED's Senior Science and Environment Editor and narrates the QUEST television program. Andrea says she feels lucky to cover emerging science and environmental trends in a place where geek is chic.