Steve Levine’s “The Powerhouse” and the Chevy Volt

The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War describes how we got to today’s electric cars, and it does so by following the vicissitudes of Argonne National Labs, which played a key role in battery development, as well as many of the scientists and players who help develop batteries. Much of the narrative structure comes from GM’s quest to build the Chevy Volt, a car that is amazing and widely underappreciated, because the conditions and assumptions that led to its development have changed.

In the late ’00s and early ’10s, almost no one foresaw the rise of fracking, which has put a lid on oil prices. If fracking hadn’t come along when it did, oil would probably be between $100 and $200 a barrel today, and GM wouldn’t be able to build enough Volts. GM’s management would look like geniuses. Instead, as has been widely reported, GM is closing a bunch of plants, likely including the one that makes Volts. People are short-sighted and, when gas prices fall, we buy bigger cars.

The Volt is neither as cheap as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car nor as interesting as an electric. It appears that most people want a pure electric or a conventional ICE car, and hybrids like the Volt are stuck in between. Most people don’t give a damn about climate change or Saudi and Russian repression, at least as measured by their behaviors when it comes to buying cars (You might argue that this is bad—I would—but, at least in terms of mass behavior, it’s true). Today, articles like, “Why Oil Prices Took Such a Tumble, and What Comes Next” are common:

It was only at the start of October that analysts were wondering if oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Then a trap door opened and oil prices have been in a rapid descent since, losing nearly a third of their value in about eight weeks.

The spread of electric vehicles is also going to cap oil price rises. As prices rise, more people will shift towards electrics. But people who rag on the Volt don’t understand why it was green-lit in the first place, and they should read The Powerhouse. Aside from being an account of the Volt, The Powerhouse is about the way science and engineering actually get done. Those fields are rarely about single individuals and often about groups, companies, universities, and the interactions among the individuals that compose the larger structures. To be sure, individuals are important (John Goodenough is a battery hero, and there are many others named in the book), but we rarely succeed alone.

The Powerhouse has flaws, as a book. Its timeline jumps around, from chapter to chapter, at times. Most of its chapters are 800 – 2,000 words, a sign that many originated as blog posts or news stories, and their integration isn’t ideal. Levine is a working journalist and so may have had less time than he would have liked to complete the book. The acknowledgements page starts, “When I began to consider a book on batteries, the reception from friends and advisers was all but unanimous: don’t do it.” I’m glad he wrote the book and will recommend it, despite its firm place in a particular time and its structural challenges. Levine created a coherent story out of many disparate pieces, and that alone is admirable.

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