By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008; Page A01
Just four months ago, a conference here on electric cars drew four times as many people as expected. District fire marshals ordered some of the crowd to leave, and the atmosphere was more like that of a rock concert than an energy conference. A brief film depicted an electric car owner driving off with a beautiful woman to the strains of “The Power of Love” while her original companion struggles to pay for gasoline. The audience cheered.
One discordant note in the series of enthusiastic speeches came from Bill Reinert, one of the Toyota Prius designers. He cautioned that designing and ramping up production of a new car takes five years.
“If oil goes down to $60 or $70 a barrel and gasoline gets back to $2.50 a gallon, and that very possibly could happen,” he said, “will that demand stay the same or will we shift back up?”
It didn’t take five years to hit those numbers. One type of oil shock has given way to another. Even more swiftly than the price of oil rose, it has tumbled to the range that seemed far-fetched when Reinert spoke and oil was more than $130 a barrel. Now that drop threatens a wide variety of game-changing plans to find alternatives to oil or ways to drastically reduce U.S. consumption.
“Declining oil prices can give us an artificial and temporary sense that reducing oil consumption and energy consumption is an issue we can put off,” said Greg Kats, a managing director of Good Energies, a multibillion-dollar venture capital firm that invests in global clean energy.
The credit crisis is compounding that threat by making it more difficult to finance capital-intensive projects, whether they are new auto assembly lines or solar panels or wind turbines. General Motors has been touting the Chevy Volt as the first mass-marketed, plug-in hybrid vehicle. GM, which has been holding merger talks with Chrysler, believes the project will help justify federal financing. It hopes to deliver the car by the end of 2010.
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