Climate

The Car of the Future: Plug-in Hybrids

The following is the Introduction to a new Progressive Policy Institute report on Plug-in Hybrids (the “car of the future“) that I co-authored:

There is a growing consensus that America’s dependence on oil constitutes a triple threat to its national security, its economic vitality, and its environmental health. But agreement breaks down on the question of how, exactly, the country can best achieve dramatic, near-term reductions in oil consumption. We believe that the greatest potential for transformative change may lie in the emerging technology of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs), which could become widely available in the United States in five to 10 years if government takes a few smart steps to help spur their commercialization.

Like conventional hybrid-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids save fuel by using small internal combustion engines in combination with electric motors. But while conventional hybrids charge their batteries with kinetic energy and power generated by their own internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrids, as the name suggests, have cords that can be plugged into standard, 120-volt electrical outlets.

That design — constituting a partial merger of the transportation and electricity sectors — can produce dramatic reductions in gasoline consumption. Equipped with more powerful battery packs than conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids can travel the first 20 miles or more on battery power alone, without ever firing up their internal combustion engines. That is farther than the average round-trip commute. After that, they can switch to a conventional hybrid-electric operating mode. In all-around driving, plug-ins could thus get between 80 m.p.g. and 160 m.p.g., compared to about 45 m.p.g. for today’s Toyota Prius. The gasoline savings could be even greater if plug-ins were designed to run on biofuels; they could travel 500 miles on a gallon of gasoline blended with five gallons of ethanol.

Even beyond the possible reductions in oil consumption, plug-ins also offer a compounded benefit in their ability to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions and thus slow global warming. The beauty is in the increased reliance on the electricity grid, which can concentrate the environmental impact of driving upstream in a few thousand electrical power plants instead of downstream in a hundred million motor vehicles. That puts the environmental policy focus squarely on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, where there is the greatest opportunity to make high-volume progress.

In reality, it is unlikely that the current U.S. vehicle fleet could ever be entirely replaced by PHEVs, for the simple reason that it would be impractical for some drivers to plug in with any regularity — people who live in urban or dense, inner-suburban areas and have no access to off-street parking, for example. For them, it might make more sense to have a conventional hybrid, or a “flex-fuel” car that can run on biofuel. But PHEVs can certainly work for enough people to make a substantial dent in America’s gasoline needs.

At the moment, the market for plug-in hybrids is still in its infancy. The first commercial model, the Mercedes-Benz Hybrid Sprinter van, is available in Europe. In the United States, there are only after-market conversion kits available to turn conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape into plug-ins (voiding their warranties). But the future looks brighter. Toyota, already the leader in gasoline-electric hybrid technology, announced in July 2006 that it would begin developing plug-in hybrids. Shortly thereafter, Google’s new philanthropic arm, Google.org, announced plans to back development of an ultra-fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity, and gasoline. More recently, GM pledged to build a plug-in hybrid. Several lingering challenges must be overcome before the oil- and climate-saving potential of plug-in technology can be realized. The larger and more complicated batteries in plug-ins make them considerably more expensive than conventional hybrids. In addition, their ability to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions depends entirely on the power sources that feed the electricity grid. If the electricity used to power plug-ins comes from relatively CO2-free sources such as wind, solar, or nuclear power, then plug-ins can be considerably cleaner than conventional hybrids. But if the electricity comes from traditional coal-fired power plants, then plug-in hybrids are no cleaner from a climate perspective than today’s conventional hybrids.

Given the tremendous promise of plug-in hybrid technology, there is a strong policy case to be made for accelerating its development. But there is an equally strong case to be made that government should refrain from picking technological winners. (Plug-in hybrids may look more promising than any other technology right now, but that could obviously change.) So what is the right role for government? The answer is that it should focus its regulatory authority on achieving the broad policy outcomes that are unquestionably in the public interest–that is, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and oil consumption– but let markets determine which technologies are best able to deliver results. Government can certainly play a catalytic role in spurring the development of specific technologies, as long as it maintains a technologically-neutral posture by keeping its efforts diversified. Indeed, that is its current approach. There are existing programs to promote plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, along with tax credits for consumer purchases of conventional hybrid-electric vehicles, subsidies for homegrown biofuels, and federally funded research projects to develop hydrogen fuel cells, among other things.

With those principles in mind, PPI proposes a three-part policy agenda that will effectively spur the development of plug-in hybrids, along with other new transportation technologies:

  • Establish a mandatory national cap on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Reform federal fuel economy standards to increase pressure on carmakers to produce high-mileage, low-emission vehicles of all types; and
  • Partner with the private sector to leap technological barriers related to such things as battery cost and performance.

Find the full text of this report here.

10 Responses to The Car of the Future: Plug-in Hybrids

  1. Wesley says:

    “If the electricity used to power plug-ins comes from relatively CO2-free sources such as wind, solar, or nuclear power, then plug-ins can be considerably cleaner than conventional hybrids. But if the electricity comes from traditional coal-fired power plants, then plug-in hybrids are no cleaner from a climate perspective than today’s conventional hybrids.”

    According to Tesla Motors, a startup electric car company in California, electricity from power plants is more efficiently transfered and used in electric drive vehicles (including pure EVs and PHEVs), resulting in a decreased environmental impact (see their white paper here: http://www.teslamotors.com/display_data/21stCentElectricCar.pdf ). Although charging with renewable power has a smaller impact than charging with fossil fuels, charging with fossil fuels still has a smaller impact than burning them in an internal combustion engine.

    My conclusion: electric vehicles make sense now, even with our currently dirty power plants.

  2. Earl Killian says:

    What Wesley said is not 100% accurate; rather the original comment was correct. Neither a PHEV (plug-in hybrid) nor a BEV (battery electric vehicle) charged from 100% coal electricity is cleaner than a pure hybrid. Charged from the U.S. electric grid average however, both are cleaner than a pure hybrid.

    Think of it this way: a BEV (or a PHEV when running electric-only) is 4-5x more efficient than an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle of the same form factor. Example: a RAV4-EV is 4.3x time more efficient than a RAV4. Tossing in the efficiency of the power plant and the refinery brings this 4-5x down to 1.6-3x. An HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) or a PHEV running gasoline only is about 1.5x as efficient as a pure ICE. Example: Honda Civic Hybrid vs. Honda Civic. That leaves a BEV being about 1-2x the efficiency of an HEV. That sounds good, but coal has 1.4x the CO2 output per energy content compared to gasoline, and coal power plants are generally at the lower end of the efficiency range (I think 44% is the highest on record, whereas natural gas plants are at 60%). This basically makes the HEV (or PHEV) running off of gasoline even or slightly better than the BEV (or PHEV) running off of coal electricity.

    Basically coal is about as dirty as EVs are efficient. It is an ugly fact. Since coal burning produces 1.8 or 1.9 gigatons of CO2 per year in the U.S. and gasoline produces only 1.2 gigatons, doing something to get rid of coal is the most important thing we can do as a nation to stop melting the planet. Once we get rid of coal, EVs look really good!

    Be careful about citing the Tesla whitepaper. It considers only Natural Gas as a fuel source. This is particularly favorable for electricity, since NG power plants have up to 60% efficiency (in fact Tesla assumes this efficiency). It therefore ignores the realities of the U.S. grid.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am an EV fan (I’m on the board of the Electric Auto Association) and my household has two EVs in the garage. We prefer to drive our EVs (in our case they are solar powered from the PV on our roof). We fire up the planetkillers in our garage (e.g. our Prius) only when necessary. I just like to make sure people don’t overstate the case for EVs, for example by saying that even a coal-powered EV is better than a gasoline-powered hybrid.

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  4. Damien Simeone says:

    Where and soon can I buy a plug in hybrid ? I live in San Diego, Ca. I am looking for quality and value. I want a large and safe sedan.

  5. Joe says:

    You’ll have to wait at least 3 years for quality and value, I think.

  6. RICK BADMAN says:

    I would use water as the source of hydrogen and oxygen for either an internal combustion engine or steam engine. Plasma igniters, electromagnetic field manipulation systems, and concentrated solar energy could ignite the water. There would be no need for a fuel cell or hydrogen refueling devices. Personally, I favor the development of stacked flywheel storage systems that have a complete vacuum with either liquid coolant or forced air cooling of the motor/generator sandwiched between the flywheel units. A goal of 100 watt-hours per cubic inch of material would allow two stacked units in the trunk as the primary energy sources in a mid-sized car the ability to power the car nonstop from New York to Chicago. Even planes could use stacked flywheel units by using either motor-driven turbine shaft engines or electromagnetic field compression which would allow the plane to travel from the ground out into space without needing to switch engines. The range for flywheel-powered planes may exceed that of conventional planes and energy costs would be a fraction of what they are now which means ticket prices could be lower and safety would be increased since no fuel would be burnt. Even water-fueled engines that use flywheels to generate the plasma for the igniters wouldn’t explode or burn if they crashed.

  7. anon says:

    Articles like this one that treat transportation CO2 emissions only as a technological problem mystify me. Existing fleets in Japan, Europe and elsewhere are more fuel efficient because the vehicles are lighter and tuned for efficiency instead of power. We could all drive Kei Jidosha and save ourselves a bundle while dramatically reducing our carbon emissions, except that they aren’t for sale, regulations are stacked against them, and most North American consumers don’t want them.

  8. Klaus D. Beccu, Ph.D. says:

    see my comment to the BBC interview related to the general problem of using electrochemical power sources with their low voltage in electric traction use (hybrids or Plug-ins) – applicable also to fuel cells, but with less problems than rechargeable batteries (no charge/discharge cycle occurs).

  9. film izle says:

    Think of it this way: a BEV (or a PHEV when running electric-only) is 4-5x more efficient than an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle of the same form factor. Example: a RAV4-EV is 4.3x time more efficient than a RAV4. Tossing in the efficiency of the power plant and the refinery brings this 4-5x down to 1.6-3x. An HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) or a PHEV running gasoline only is about 1.5x as efficient as a pure ICE. Example: Honda Civic Hybrid vs. Honda Civic. That leaves a BEV being about 1-2x the efficiency of an HEV. That sounds good, but coal has 1.4x the CO2 output per energy content compared to gasoline, and coal power plants are generally at the lower end of the efficiency range (I think 44% is the highest on record, whereas natural gas plants are at 60%). This basically makes the HEV (or PHEV) running off of gasoline even or slightly better than the BEV (or PHEV) running off of coal electricity.

  10. Don’t get me wrong; I am an EV fan (I’m on the board of the Electric Auto Association) and my household has two EVs in the garage. We prefer to drive our EVs (in our case they are solar powered from the PV on our roof). We fire up the planetkillers in our garage (e.g. our Prius) only when necessary. I just like to make sure people don’t overstate the case for EVs, for example by saying that even a coal-powered EV is better than a gasoline-powered hybrid.