Last week, the National Summit on Energy Security took place in Washington DC. Government, military and business leaders gathered to address America’s reliance on foreign oil. Part of the proceedings involved a war-game like simulation called the “Oil shockWave.” First run in 2005, the simulation serves to generate a number of destabilizing geo-political scenarios, forcing leaders to grapple with, and suggest solutions to, spiraling oil prices along with global turmoil that would likely ensue. According to this piece from the UK’s Guardian, the solution to any foreign oil supply disruption, from some quarters at least, is to default to drilling more domestic oil. This is, arguably, disappointingly unimaginative, and simply serves to address the symptoms, not the cause of our oil dependence.
However, certain business leaders propose that domestic drilling is not the only way out. Panel participants at the summit included both FedEx and family-owned Enterprise Holdings – the operator of Enterprise Rent-A-Car – whose CEO, Andy Taylor, timed the announcement of the nations largest electric vehicle rental roll-out, to coincide with the summit. I spoke to Mr. Lee Broughton, Enterprise’s Head of Sustainability, who said there is still a knee-jerk tendency to leverage oil resources and stabilize prices, before talking seriously about alternatives, yet he said, “when you have a crisis, options are incredibly limited.” So, businesses like FedEx and Enterprise feel the time is right to embrace alternative fuels now. And since the electric car is here, and the grid is in place, electrification should form an important part of the mix today.
To this end, Enterprise will deploy the Chevrolet Volt and the all electric Nissan LEAF in the US Market, as well as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Peugot’s iOn in the UK. Enterprise is projected to absorb 12% of leased Nissan LEAF vehicles in the US – the largest EV rental fleet in service. The company stresses the introduction must be an evolutionary process to be managed pragmatically.
“Enterprise’s worldview sits at the confluence of what the driver wants and what the manufacturer builds,” Mr Broughton told me, and went on to explain that in deploying these vehicles, they look to governments, including local ones, to invest in the charging infrastructure to make these vehicles compelling, and useful, to drivers.
It is evolutionary too, in the sense that while the electric vehicle is here today, it may be just one of an array of alternative fuel vehicle options further ahead. “Enterprise is fuel agnostic,” Mr Broughton says, which perhaps explains why the company has invested $25 million to establish the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Here, 22 PhD scientists are researching various alternative fuels which may become future game changers. For example, the institute is working on getting algae based fuels down to $2 per gallon, from a lofty $60 per gallon. The institute believes that we might be just five to ten years away from seeing algae derived fuels as a viable alternative to gasoline.
But what appears to be the driver of Enterprise’s focus on alternative fuels is the company’s clear awareness of their core business. As Mr. Broughton explained to me, “the passenger vehicle has to remain economically viable and socially acceptable.” If that premise does not prevail, then they won’t have a market. And it’s not too much of a stretch to suppose the fossil-fuel paradigm might not serve that premise forever.
In the meantime, Enterprise has already embraced sustainability as a business driver- it ensures they run an efficient operation. The use of energy efficiency measures at their facilities will save them a projected $50 million dollars, while their shuttle bus fleet is targeted to run exclusively on B20 bio-diesel by 2015. And because many of their employees enter the organization as graduate management trainees, they find new hires from these ranks are tremendously motivated to work for a company that has embraced sustainability.
Where all this leaves foreign oil dependance is anyone’s guess, but Mr. Broughton relayed an important point made during the summit last week: a national energy policy is something that will require leadership, not politicking. Similarly, Enterprise feels that as the largest organization in their business category, there is an important leadership component in their efforts towards an alternative fuel future too.