Daily Sprout

Ford’s $550M Electric Focus Factory: Ford (s F) plans to invest $550 million retooling a truck and SUV plant in Wayne, Mich. to build subcompact cars, including an electric version of the Ford Focus developed in partnership with Magna International (s MGA). — Detroit Free Press

Carbon Cap/Tax Throwdown:Is all the ruckus over the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill about getting the market to find solutions to climate change or getting the government to do it? — WSJ’s Environmental Capital

Cal’s CITRIS: Solar Startup Haven?: The University of California at Berkeley’s new nanofabrication engineering facility, CITRIS, will give startups working on semiconductors and new materials access to customizable chipmaking equipment. — VentureBeat

Oil Prices Spike: Oil prices jumped today to a 2009 high after a government report showed that the amount of unused crude being place in storage slowed last week, although analysts say there’s little evidence energy demand is picking up. — Associated Press

Subprime Carbon: China’s booming hydropower sector faces mounting criticism for generating “subprime carbon” credits from projects that don’t need the boost to succeed, putting billions of dollars of clean energy investments at risk. — Reuters

Why Bill Ford (Yes, That Ford) Wants a Gas Tax Hike

“One thing I’ll tell you for sure: our ability to forecast has been just horrible,” Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. (s F) said late Monday in an onstage interview at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. While the company has brought in a legion of experts over the years to help with vehicle planning — helping to anticipate where the market would move over the three to five years it took to develop a new vehicle — it “might as well have just tossed darts,” said Ford.

Just a few years ago, he said, the buzz at a conference like this one, held in Southern California, would have been about hydrogen cars, which he said “would have been the holy grail,” and ethanol blends, for which the company has made a big push with its flex-fuel vehicle lineup. Even now, he said, it’s not at all clear to the company where vehicle technology will end up.
But one thing that can help focus markets with dart throwers is regulation. In that sense Ford actually endorses a gas tax hike. “If prices are gyrating wildly,” he said, it becomes extremely difficult to know whether the company is planning the right vehicle or technology (if you’re operating under the assumption that automakers should supply what the market demands, and that there’s a lot less demand for fuel-sippers when gas is cheap). Ford noted that in the EU, diesel fuel “became an easy decision” for drivers after the government decided to make it much cheaper than gasoline.
Bottom line, he said, it’s preferable to have a fairly predictable, stable planning horizon rather than even cheap gas for the short-term. In other words, if gas is going to be six bucks a gallon in five years, so be it — at least he can plan for it.
Photo courtesy Flickr user dok1

Netflix Pays Cash to Stream South Park

Cartman & Co. are headed for Netflix (s NFLX), as the movie rental company has signed a deal to stream the first nine seasons of South Park through its Watch Instantly service, reports The New York Times today.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have already shown their show is a hit online at SouthParkStudios.com, which features 181 episodes and has generated 300 million views since April of last year.

The Times reports that Parker and Stone, who control South Park‘s digital sale and display, met with Hulu and Joost, but went with Netflix because the company offered them cash (and the guys like the service). Parker and Stone split non-TV revenue 50-50 with Comedy Central, the cable channel that carries the show.

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Ford to Follow GM in Making Plug-in Battery Cells Overseas

020309_escapehybridpluginIn the latest blow to the emerging U.S. lithium-ion battery industry, Ford Motor (s f) said it’s picked the French-American joint venture Johnson Controls-Saft to supply batteries for the automaker’s first plug-in electric vehicle. Ford said today it plans to assemble the system stateside from cells produced (at least initially) at a Saft Groupe SA (s SAFT) facility in Nersac, France. Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls (s JCI), one of the world’s largest automotive battery suppliers, will design the system.

This intercontinental arrangement with the joint venture, which also supplied batteries for the Ford Escape plug-in test fleet and makes batteries for Mercedes-Benz and BMW (s BMW) hybrids, is similar to the plan General Motors (s GM) announced for the Chevy Volt last month: GM picked South Korea-based LG Chem to manufacture cells overseas for battery packs to be assembled in Michigan.

Having just secured federal bailout funds, GM took a lot of heat for sending the deal abroad. Ford and its partners seem to have paid close attention the fallout, emphasizing the red-white-and-blueness of assembling the packs in the U.S. — and drawing attention to the importance of building up domestic supply. “As U.S. vehicle manufacturers commercialize their hybrid programs,” Johnson Controls Power Solutions president Alex Molinaroli said in Ford’s release, “the industry will be best served with a qualified and robust domestic supply base.” Read More about Ford to Follow GM in Making Plug-in Battery Cells Overseas

10 Green Announcements From the Detroit Auto Show Kick-off

Automakers kicked off this year’s North American International Auto Show, commonly called the Detroit Auto Show, yesterday with less glitz and more conspicuous frugality than in years past. But new plans for hybrid and electric models were hardly in short supply. Things picked up again this morning — here’s a round-up of the big news so far:

Toyota Plans Global EV Rollout: Toyota announced plans to launch an all-electric city car in the U.S. earlier this month. But not until today did an executive reveal the company’s scheme to roll out the electric vehicle (based on the FT-EV concept) in Japan, Europe and the U.S. by 2012.

BYD to Hit U.S. in 2011: BYD Auto Co. said it plans to sell its electric e6 concept and F6DM plug-in hybrid sedan in the U.S. by 2011. The China-based auto and battery maker unveiled the e6 in Detroit today, pledging a 250-mile range on a single charge.
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Daily Sprout

UK Wind Farms Tangled in Red Tape: Britain has 262 wind projects representing seven gigawatts stuck in planning stages, and the rate of approvals is only getting slower. — The Guardian

Electric Bikes Grow Up: “Even though motorcycles and scooters may represent a smaller percentage of the pie when it comes to emissions inventory, it doesn’t mean their makers shouldn’t have proper incentive to be using new, greener technologies.” — Wired’s Autopia

San Franciscans Resist Congestion-Pricing Plan: Public opposition to fees for driving into San Francisco raises the question of whether environmental initiatives are too important to be left to voters. — WSJ’s Environmental Capital

Ford Fusion Scores Better Fuel Economy: Tricked out with Toyota (s TM) technology, the 2010 Ford (s F) Fusion Hybrid has been certified at 41 mpg for city driving, compared with only 33 mpg for Toyota’s Camry. — BusinessWeek

Power from the People: The 2009 sign at tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square will run (for 15 minutes) on electricity generated by tourists pedaling on stationary bikes. — NYT’s Bits Blog

Vid Picks: Carmakers Crash YouTube

Listening to most executives talk is a hard thing to do for more than two minutes at a time. There’s so much verbal obfuscation it starts to resemble a game of how to use the most words to say the least, leading to achievements like JetBlue (s jblu) CEO David Neeleman’s YouTube non-apology. But right now the big three U.S. auto manufacturers are trying to get their point across to the American people, using the tools of social networking…with minimal success.

The GM (s gm) Blogs initiative is firing on all of its social media cylinders — blogging, Twittering and YouTubing. But as Chris noted back in October, YouTube comments are still disabled, and while the blog is well-intentioned (and does allow commenting), it’s all pretty after-the-fact. A post from Dec. 2nd makes GM’s plan for long-term viability available to the general public. But if GM were really interested in what the American people thought, why didn’t they make the plan available before submitting it to Congress, actively soliciting ideas and incorporating feedback into the final product? The 7-minute-long video accompanying this blog post gives the less-than-dynamic Ray Young a chance to answer some questions about the plan. Not questions from actual people, though, just questions chosen by the marketing team to focus on the points they want covered: another missed opportunity for real interactivity. Read More about Vid Picks: Carmakers Crash YouTube

Detroit Execs’ Hybrid Parade to D.C. Too Little, Too Late

UPDATED In the interest of avoiding another Jetgate, Detroit’s Big Three auto executives are leaving their leased corporate aircraft on the ground this week. All three will drive to Washington, D.C. to present “viability plans” as part of their second bailout plea. Ford (s F) CEO Alan Mulally set off on the roughly 520-mile trip yesterday in an Escape Hybrid, and General Motors (s GM) chief Rick Wagoner plans to drive most of the way today in a Chevy Malibu Hybrid (he may also hop into a Chevy Cobalt XFE or Buick Lucerne for part of the trip), the companies announced yesterday. (Update: Wagoner ended up driving a prototype of the Chevy Volt for part of the trip.) Chrysler also decided to join the hybrid parade, saying CEO Robert Nardelli would drive a hybrid vehicle (no model named) to congressional hearings on Friday.

The idea of legislators ridiculing millionaire executives into traveling like ordinary folks has generated no small amount of buzz (just a few examples: New York Times, LA Times, Reuters). But if the Big Three want to demonstrate commitment to innovation and fuel-efficient vehicles (aka viability), the models they’ve chosen offer too little evidence, too late.
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LA Auto Show: 5 to Watch

Detroit’s top executives have other obligations this week, but in Los Angeles, the auto show must go on. In addition to electric-vehicle infrastructure initiatives, hybrid and all-electric vehicles figure large among more than 30 North American and world premieres at this year’s event, which opens to the public tomorrow. These five models stand out from the herd in terms of affordability, design — and likely time to market.
Mini E: Early next year, BMW (s bmw) plan to lease 500 prototypes of these all-electric coupes for year-long test drives in New York, New Jersey and California. A timeline has yet to be established for full-scale production, but relative to other EV developers, BMW is moving fast. A heavy lithium-ion battery pack takes only three hours to charge with a special “wallbox unit,” and can power the car for up to 150 miles, the company reports. Downside: The batteries eliminate backseat space found in the Cooper S model, the basis for the Mini E. Read More about LA Auto Show: 5 to Watch