Sunday, December 30, 2007

An Electrifying Thought for Ford's St. Paul Plant

By David Morris
The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Sunday 25 November 2007

Why close a location when it could be used to produce the plug-in truck of the future?

In these pages two years ago I urged the Ford Motor Co. to make its St. Paul Ranger plant the centerpiece for a bold new transportation initiative - a battery-powered vehicle, charged from a household socket, with a backup biofueled engine. Ford's October 2005 announcement that multibillion dollars losses would require "significant" plant closings, potentially including St. Paul's plant, sparked the proposal.

At the time Ford was uninterested, and worse. When the Legislature took up a bill to create a task force to examine the potential for making a plug-in at the St. Paul plant, Ford dispatched an official to lobby against the bill. She was the only one opposed. Both chambers passed the bill unanimously.

In 2005, Ford turned its back on electric-powered vehicles after manufacturing and leasing 1,500 all-electric Rangers to comply with California's electric-vehicle mandate. The mandate was lifted in 2003, and Ford, along with General Motors, began gathering up and crushing their vehicles. Two leaseholders waged a yearlong campaign to be allowed to buy their Rangers. In January 2005, after a sit-in was conducted at a Ford dealership, the company agreed.

In crash tests, the electric Ranger was superior to the gas-engine Ranger. One of the protesters, David Bernikoff-Raboy, a rancher in Mariposa County, Calif., told a local newspaper, "These are great vehicles. Ford is missing a huge marketing opportunity with these vehicles."

In April 2006, Ford decided to close the St. Paul Ranger plant by mid-2008.

That was then, this is now. To paraphrase a famous Minnesotan, the times they are a-changing.

Ford is under new management. Bill Ford is out. Alan Mulally, former head of Boeing, is in.

Ford just announced it would continue to operate the Ranger plant through 2009. Dramatically lower labor costs, a result of halving the workforce at the plant and hiring temporary workers at lower wages, coupled with increased sales due to the higher Canadian dollar, has resulted in profits as high as several thousand dollars per vehicle.

Ford has changed its stance toward electric-powered vehicles. In July, along with the utility Southern California Edison, it announced a collaboration to examine the future of plug-in hybrid vehicles. "By combining strengths, ours in hybrid technology, theirs in energy management, we can consider transportation as part of the broader energy system and work to unleash the potential of plug-in technology for consumers," Mulally said.

GM has announced a major effort to get its new plug-in vehicle, the Volt, on the road in 2010-2012. Several dozen plug-in Priuses are on the roads in Japan, a remarkable turnaround for Toyota, a company that for years used as its tag line in Prius ads: "You never have to plug it in." The company is also developing flexible-fuel technology that could use E85 ethanol for the back-up engine.

These changes can, and should, lead Ford, the UAW and Minnesota to revisit a plan to make the St. Paul plant the basis for a new, green transportation initiative. An electricity-biofueled vehicle makes very good sense. Traveling on electricity costs about a penny a mile, compared with more than 13 cents on gas. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if every light-duty car and truck in America used plug-in hybrid technology, 75 percent could be plugged in and fueled at night by the electricity grid without the need to construct a single new power plant. Since we use very little oil to generate electricity, electric miles are essentially oil-free miles. If the backup engine were fueled by ethanol or biodiesel, the vehicle could reduce overall petroleum consumption by more than 90 percent.

Minnesota is blessed with plentiful wind resources in virtually all parts of the state. The Achilles' heel of wind energy, as well as direct sunlight, is its intermittence. Electric vehicles can overcome this shortcoming. Their large electric-storage capacity can be charged anytime renewable electricity is available. When needed, the batteries can be tapped to provide power to the house, business, farm or regional grid.

The Ranger may be a suitable candidate for such a vehicle. It costs little. It already boasts the best fuel economy in its vehicle class. Converting it to a plug-in would increase that efficiency three- to five-fold. The Ranger weighs only a little more than the Prius and about the same as the Ford Escape, making it a good candidate for battery power. It has room for a significant battery pack.

That Ford can make a profit now with relatively low production runs of the Ranger may also be helpful in introducing a new type of vehicle. In October, Rangers put up about the same sales numbers (4,800) that GM hopes to achieve in the first year after it introduces the Volt.

The St. Paul plant also boasts a large new training facility, which could become the site for a collaboration between Ford and companies such as 3M and Johnson Controls that could give Minnesota a leg up on becoming not only an assembler of but a supplier of parts to these new vehicles.

To mix my metaphors: The table is set. Will Ford step up to the plate?

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, DC.


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