WASHINGTON — David Sandalow starts his five-mile commute each day by unplugging an orange extension cord connecting his Toyota Prius hybrid to an outlet in his brick carport.
His Prius, which was converted two years ago to allow him to recharge the battery from an electric outlet, gets more than 80 miles per gallon and lets him drive 30 miles on a single charge. He fills up his car with gasoline about once every month or two, an oddity in a transportation sector long dominated by the internal combustion engine.
"If you're thirsty, you can get a Diet Coke or orange juice or water. If you're hungry you can get a hamburger or hot dog or a fruit plate. If you want to drive someplace, you only have one choice. You can use gasoline or petroleum-based products," says Sandalow, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for policy and international affairs. "That doesn't seem strange to us ... but it's odd. It's strange that we are utterly dependent on this one fuel source for mobility."
If American consumers begin to shift to electric cars this decade, Sandalow will be one of the government's driving forces behind the change. Crafting policy from the vantage point of an electric car driver himself, the former Brookings Institution scholar has helped shape the Obama administration's ambitious plan to pump billions of dollars into partnerships aimed at developing cars running on electric power, creating an advanced battery industry and helping communities prepare for the transition.
President Barack Obama has pledged to bring 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to U.S. highways by 2015, and turned to the nascent battery industry as one of the hallmarks of his economic recovery plan. Electric vehicles built by General Motors and Nissan are arriving in showrooms later this year and every major auto manufacturer is working on an electric strategy, encouraged by federal funding and tax incentives.
Plenty of obstacles remain: the lithium-ion batteries expected to power electric vehicles are extremely expensive, even when the costs are reduced by a $7,500-per-vehicle federal tax credit. The government recently estimated that a battery with a 100-mile range costs about $33,000, although federal stimulus funds could bring the costs down to $10,000 by the end of 2015. Other concerns remain about the durability and longevity of the batteries.
The government's projections could be rosy, some analysts contend, and the program could create more capacity for building the batteries than consumers demand. "It definitely is a risky investment. We don't think that the sales of electric vehicles will be as high as the government is hoping," said Mike Omotoso, J.D. Power's senior manager of global powertrain.
But with concerns about global warming and oil politics, the administration sees an opportunity in electric cars, and Sandalow is leading the charge.
Obama pushed a $2.4 billion grant program to develop next-generation batteries, which could lead to 500,000 batteries a year by late 2014. A 2007 energy law, meanwhile, has led to billions in loans for automakers to retool their plants for fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric cars.
Sandalow, 53, served in the State Department and at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He was tapped for the Energy Department's top policy job after studying oil dependence, electric vehicles and climate change at the Brookings Institute.
Sandalow has helped the administration speed the development of electric cars and offer incentives for consumers and communities to begin taking steps to transition off conventional vehicles.
His plug-in Prius differs from the standard Prius hybrid, which is powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor and typically offers drivers better mileage in slow-speed and stop-and-go driving. Standard hybrids do not allow motorists to recharge a battery by plugging into a standard electrical outlet.
Sandalow discovered the merits of electric cars while studying oil dependence at Brookings. His 2007 book, "Freedom From Oil," included a series of hypothetical memos from different Cabinet agencies with suggestions on how a future presidential administration could help the U.S. move away from imported petroleum.
He concluded that electric cars and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles represented the quickest way to begin making the shift. With more than 240 million vehicles on the road, it will take years to turn over the fleet, but he noted that drivers with short commutes – like his own daily trip to the Energy Department from his home in Washington – could use electric power, recharging at night when electrical loads are low.
Following his research, Sandalow decided to get his Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, converted into a plug-in hybrid at a Gaithersburg, Md., auto dealership. The $9,000 conversion, which was developed by Massachusetts battery maker A123Systems, included the installation of a large battery inside the spare tire well underneath the trunk and a charging outlet in the bumper.
The conversion allows Sandalow to recharge his battery from a standard 110-volt outlet in about six hours. His family owns another car but Sandalow says his plug-in Prius is used for long-distance travel as well.
Sandalow estimates running the car on electricity costs the equivalent of about 75 cents a gallon of gasoline. "Electric cars are quiet, they're cheap to drive, they've got great pickup and I think they're patriotic, also," Sandalow said. "That combination, I think, means they're the technology of the future."
Administration officials are working with states and cities to help streamline permitting for home charging stations and develop public charging stations for those who want to recharge their cars away from home – all for a new generation of motorists.
"My children are teenagers. They can scarcely imagine growing up in a world without personal computers, cell phones or GPS devices," Sandalow said. "I predict that someday one of my children will have one of their children look at them and say, 'You mean you couldn't plug in cars when you were young? That's so weird.' "