Are Plug-in Hybrids the Answer to Oil Dependency?

Essay by David Sandlow, author of Freedom from Oil.

Published: 10-Jan-2008

To reduce oil dependence, nothing would do more good more quickly than making cars that could connect to the electric grid.

The United States has a vast infrastructure for generating electric power. However, that infrastructure is essentially useless in cutting oil dependence, because modern cars can't connect to it. If we built cars that ran on electricity and plugged into the grid, the potential for displacing oil would be enormous.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are a game-changing technology. They can break our oil addiction, cut driving costs and reduce pollution. To help end U.S. oil dependence, there is no higher priority than putting millions of plug-in hybrids on the road soon.

A QUICK HISTORY OF ELECTRIC CARS
The first cars ran on electricity. In 1900, electric cars outsold all other kinds. However, early electric cars could travel no more than a few miles on a single charge. Cars with internal combustion engines, fueled by petroleum, could go much farther. During the early decades of the 20th century, petroleum-fueled cars took over the market.

For almost 90 years, electric vehicles were limited to niche applications. Golf carts and fork lifts used electric motors, but on-the-road vehicles almost never did. Then, in the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress and State of California passed clean air rules designed to spur innovation by major automakers. Several responded with new models of electric cars.
Unfortunately the electric cars of the 1990s produced more controversy than clean air. General Motors EV-1 was the most controversial. Leased mainly in California, with a range of 80-140 miles, the EV-1 won hundreds of wildly enthusiastic owners. But GM considered overall buyer interest inadequate and discontinued production. Major auto manufacturers lobbied successfully to change the California rules requiring them to build "zero emission" cars.

In the late 1990s,Toyota and Honda began marketing the first "hybrid electrics." A hybrid electric vehicle combines an internal combustion engine and electric motor. The engine runs on oil and the electric motor draws power from a battery. The battery is recharged with extra power from the engine (for example, when the car is going downhill) and energy captured from the brakes (in a process known as "regenerative braking"). When the battery is depleted, the vehicle runs on its gas tank. This solves the problem of short driving range that plagued other electric vehicles, while providing better fuel efficiency, torque and other measures of engine performance than a car with an internal combustion engine only.

Beginning in 2003, buyer interest in hybrid electric vehicles began to explode. By 2004, buyers were forced to wait months as dealers struggled to keep up with growing demand.4Worldwide, more than 1,000,000 hybrid electric vehicles have now been sold.

2. THE NEXT STEP-PLUG-IN HYBRIDS
The next big step in automotive technology is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Like conventional hybrids, PHEVs combine an electric motor and internal combustion engine. But, as the name suggests, there is an important additional feature. Plug-in hybrids can be recharged from the electric grid. They can-quite literally-be plugged into a wall socket.

The idea is simple, but the consequences are far-reaching:

With plug-in hybrids, many drivers would need no petroleum for their daily commute. Cars could be recharged at night and many drivers could travel back and forth to work or around town using the car's electric motor only.
Driving costs would drop dramatically. At national average electricity prices, PHEVs would cost the equivalent of roughly 75 cents per gallon to drive when operating on their electric motors. (When charging, a plug-in hybrid car draws roughly the same amount of electricity as a home space heater.)
As with many electric cars, torque and acceleration would be excellent.
Said one enthusiast who converted his Toyota Prius to a plug-in: "Everyone wants to drive electric cars, they just don't know it yet."

The biggest barrier to mass production is battery technology. Adding a plug-in feature to a conventional hybrid engine requires adjustments that increase the cost and size of the batteries, while shortening their expected life. Extra costs now run roughly from $8,000 to $11,000 per car. These costs are expected to drop sharply, however, with mass production and advances in battery technology. Many innovators-supported by substantial venture capital-are at work on new high-performance batteries.

In late 2006, General Motors announced plans to produce a plug-in hybrid, known as the Chevy Volt, and displayed a prototype at the Detroit Auto Show. Toyota and other manufacturers have also indicated they are looking seriously at PHEVs. The time frame for bringing these cars to market is unclear.

Plug-in hybrids are coming. Private investments and the predictable pace of innovation will help bring them to market, slowly, during the next decade. Federal policies could dramatically accelerate this pace. The balance of this memo summarizes the benefits of PHEVs and suggests polices to put millions on the road soon.

The above is an excerpt from Freedom from Oil by David Sandalow. It is a potential response to the Memo from the President.

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