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Plug-In Hybrids
Our Best Hope

Cal-CarsIn January of this year, auto manufacturers showed their wares at the North American International Auto Show. Standing tall in the showroom was the H3, produced by General Motors (GM). This smaller version of the Hummer SUV gets about 15 miles to the gallon.

Just across the showroom, a head’s turn away, GM was showcasing another vehicle: the Chevrolet Volt, the first proposed plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) to come out of the world’s largest auto manufacturers. The Volt is still a concept car, but the technology behind it has many hoping that the cars of the future will use ten times less gas than the H3, getting around 150 miles to the gallon (plus electricity).

PHEVs are like the current gasoline-hybrid cars on the market, but with a larger battery capacity and a plug that allows drivers to recharge that battery from any conventional electrical outlet. The bigger, better battery allows the car to get power by plugging in, unlike a regular hybrid, resulting in a cleaner burning car with far fewer greenhouse gas emissions and increased fuel efficiency. PHEVs turn the gas tank into a backup fuel source, which kicks in when the electric battery is drained, means that drivers can effect those environmental benefits while still enjoying the long-distance range of a conventional gas powered car.

GM predicts that the Chevy Volt will be capable of getting 150 mpg—well above the 60 mpg fuel economy goals for 2054 set out in Green America’s 12-Step Plan to curb climate change. PHEVs look especially
attractive from a global warming perspective when the electricity comes from renewable sources—then, their total emissions go way down.

Better yet, we have what it takes to make the switch to PHEVs now, without waiting around for unproven technology while the climate crisis deepens. Demonstration cars built and driven by PHEV aficionados regularly get 100 mpg in city driving and lower mileage on the highway—overall mileage remains an impressive 80–150 mpg.

So why aren’t they here yet, and what can we do to get the big automakers to start making them?

The Next Step in Efficiency
For many, the development of the plug-in hybrid, or PHEV, is the answer to the decades-old problem of bringing emissions- free electric vehicles to the mass market. Even with a range of 100–150 miles for every five hours of charging, electric cars have proven a difficult sell to the average US consumer, despite their fuel savings and environmental benefits.

“For most people, having a car that puts out zero emissions isn’t enough,” says Dave Goldstein, president of the Washington Area Electric Vehicle Association. “People want to know whether or not the car will meet their daily needs, and whether it will be able to carry their family to the beach. So to appeal to the mass market and bring down emissions, we need to focus on increasing the range of the electric vehicle. The plug-in hybrid is the next step.”

Because of the increased battery capacity, PHEVs could run on electricity much of the time—the Chevy Volt, for instance, would have a 40-mile electric range before the combustion engine would kick in. The US Department of Transportation estimates that the average American drives 29 miles a day, so most drivers would be able to use little or even no liquid fuel between charges.

“Well-to-wheels” analysis (which considers the energy used to extract and process fuel and power a vehicle) by Argonne National Labs show that PHEVs run on conventional gasoline emit 40 percent less CO2, 35 percent less carbon monoxide, and almost 50 percent fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than standard internal combustion engines. A paper put out by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) confirms Argonne’s findings, stating that even given the current mix of electricity in the US grid, the use of PHEVs would emit an average of 42 percent fewer CO2 emissions than vehicles with standard engines.

While other fuel alternatives, like ethanol from corn, produce little net energy and require a vast new production and delivery infrastructure, we could switch the majority of cars to PHEVs tomorrow without building a single new power plant. A 2007 study by NREL concludes that the current US electrical grid has enough off-peak power for the daily commutes 73 percent of the US light duty fleet (all cars, trucks, SUVS, and vans), if they were PHEVs. The remainder could easily come from renewable solar or wind energy.

In fact, EVs and PHEVs are the only personal vehicles currently available that can be run on electricity generated by renewable resources. If your home runs on green power right now, plugging a PHEV into one of its outlets would enable you to drive nearly emission-free until you drain your battery and the combustion engine kicks in.

As Sherry Boschert points out in Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America (New Society Publishers, 2006), PHEVs make wind power use even more attractive. The problem with wind power has been that it is most abundant during nighttime off-peak hours, when most people are sleeping rather than using electricity—and power storage for later use isn’t a technology that’s readily available. However, most car owners would plug in their PHEVs at night, giving utilities a market for peak wind power.

The few PHEVs on the road now use gasoline as their fuel source, but PHEVs could be designed to run on biodiesel or cellulosic ethanol. Because PHEVs mostly use electricity for daily driving, switching to PHEVs on a large scale would help resolve much of the food vs. fuel debate swirling around biofuels. Boschert notes that widespread use of PHEVs would reduce the need for liquid fuel in the US to a small fraction of the 200 billion gallons we use per year, making a switch to a sustainable biofuel easier to achieve—and then the net emissions of a PHEV would get even better.

And it’s not just the environment that would benefit from the use of PHEVs, but consumers’ wallets as well. Calculations by the Electric Power Research Institute show that PHEVs cost the equivalent of 75 cents/gallon to run—which, assuming $3/gallon gasoline and 8.5 cents/kwh electricity, is a 75 percent reduction in the cost of fueling a vehicle with gasoline alone.

What's Stopping Us?
While GM is the only car company to present a concept plug-in hybrid, other manufacturers say they are looking into the technology. However, none has a production schedule to get these cars on the road. Car manufacturers claim they’re waiting for lithium-ion batteries that last the lifetime of the car and have a 40-mile range, before they can bring a reliable and affordable PHEV to US showrooms.

But PHEV advocates argue that car makers already have the technology—and they’ve proven it by converting standard hybrids to plug-ins themselves. Felix Kramer of the California Cars Initiative (a.k.a., a group dedicated to promoting PHEVs, drives a PHEV converted from a 2004 Toyota Prius. Kramer’s souped-up Prius averages over 100 mpg, puts out half the CO2 emissions of a conventional non-hybrid, and costs less than half as much per mile to drive.

“The sticking point is that carmakers don’t want to do this yet, and they cite batteries as a reason,” says Kramer. “We say that we have batteries now that are good enough, and the world can’t wait. If we get a first version out there, the product will continue to evolve, and by the time the car companies are in mass production, batteries will be far better.”

But even while the car manufacturers drag their feet, several companies have emerged that will convert gasoline-electric hybrids to PHEVs. The process costs between $10,000–$15,000 per vehicle. Most conversions so far have been for utilities and municipal fleets, except for a few pioneers like Kramer, who was the first consumer to own a PHEV.

Toyota, maker of the Prius and Camry hybrids, surpassed US automaker GM in world sales for the first quarter of 2007, and Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, sees US automakers’ reluctance to move forward with hybrid technology as the center of their sale problem.

“The ‘big three’ is not the ‘big three’ anymore,” Iacocca told National Public Radio, referring to the falling sales of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. “[They] didn’t adapt quickly enough to the energy problem in this country [and were] not ready with the right kind of cars.”

He now sees the future in PHEVs. “I’ve become a real fan of plug-in hybrids,” he said, adding that he believes PHEVs will be the “wave of the next five years, big time.”

Fortunately, the support base for PHEVs is starting to gain some serious momentum. Kramer notes that the list of universities, utilities, and government officials from across party lines supporting PHEVs (available at shows how broad it has become. In fact, former CIA Director James Woolsey, who advocates for PHEVs for national security reasons, calls the diverse interests lining up behind PHEVs the “coalition between the tree- huggers, the do-gooders, the sod busters, the cheap hawks, and the evangelicals.”

But it’s up to all of us to pressure the car manufacturers to put PHEVs on the market sooner, rather than later. “Before we get Detroit to really take this seriously, we’ll have to send them the message that this is what consumers want,” says Dave Goldstein. “We need to generate excitement and confidence, so people will start walking into their dealerships and saying, ‘I’m not buying a car until it plugs in.’”

—Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist


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