Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution, nationally and globally

I have a new article in Salon, “The car of the future is here,” about plug-in hybrids. The two central points of the article are:

  1. Plug-in hybrids (and electric cars) are an essential climate strategy, enabling renewable power (even intermittent sources like wind) to become a major low-cost transportation fuel.
  2. Practical, affordable plug-in hybrids will be here in a few years — even if we don’t get a technology breakthrough in batteries.

[I am even more confident of these conclusions given the amazing joint announcement today by Renault-Nissan, Project Better Place, and Israel — see below.]

If you read the Salon article, you’ll know more than billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who recently said:

Forget plug-ins. They are nice toys. But they will not be material to climate change.

The subject deserves a far more serious discussion. Transportation is the toughest sector in which to achieve deep carbon emissions reductions. Of the three major alternative fuels that could plausibly provide a low-carbon substitute for a significant amount of petroleum:

I was especially impressed by AFS Trinity’s plug-in hybrid design, which I test drove last year (see “The Extreme (plug in) Hybrid — no breakthrough needed!“).

I am even more heartened about the prospects for pure electric vehicles (EVs) in other countries after seeing the following truly ground-breaking announcement today.

In Jerusalem, Renault-Nissan, Project Better Place, and Israel have committed to a major nationwide EV plan:

  • 100% electric vehicles: Renaults vehicles [available 2011] will run on pure electricity for all functions. The objective of zero emissions will be achieved, while at the same time offering driving performances similar to a 1.6 liter gasoline engine. Renaults electric vehicles will be equipped with lithium-ion batteries, ensuring greater driving range and longevity.
  • Innovative business model: For the first time in the electric vehicle business, ownership of the car is separated from the requirement to own a battery. Consumers will buy and own their car and subscribe to energy, including the use of the battery, on a basis of kilometers driven. This model is similar to the way mobile phones are sold, with an initial purchase and a monthly subscription for the mobility service.
  • Competitive cost of ownership: The Israeli government recently extended a tax incentive on the purchase of any zero-emissions vehicle until 2019, making them more affordable. Combined with the lower cost of electricity as opposed to fuel-based energy, and the vehicles lifetime guarantee, the total cost of ownership for the customer will be significantly lower than that of a fuel-based car over the life cycle of the vehicle.
  • Electric Recharge Grid infrastructure: California-based Project Better Place plans to deploy a massive network of battery charging spots. Driving range will no longer be an obstacle, because customers will be able to plug their cars into charging units in any of the 500,000 charging spots in Israel. An on-board computer system will indicate to the driver the remaining power supply and the nearest charging spot. Nissan, through its joint venture with NEC, has created a battery pack that meets the requirements of the electric vehicle and will mass-produce it. Renault is working on development of exchangeable batteries for continuous mobility. [!] The entire framework will go through a series of tests starting this year.
  • Perfect first mass market: In Israel, where 90% of car owners drive less than 70 kilometers per day, and all major urban centers are less than 150 kilometers apart, electric vehicles would be the ideal means of transportation and could therefore cover most of the populations transportation needs.

The private sector is stepping up to the plate with world-class ingenuity, and other countries are forming partnerships to begin deploying electric drive cars. Is the U.S. government going to join the game, or once again abandon the field to more forward-thinking countries?

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27 Responses to Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution, nationally and globally

  1. Paul K says:

    The best and quickest way for the government to get into the game is to immediately direct government vehicle purchasers to buy only American made hybrid and plug in vehicles until there are none available and then put down deposits for more. It doesn’t even need a bill from congress or an executive order. It can probably be done at the department level.

  2. Since recent breakthroughs in battery technology seemingly make battery powered driving distances of several hundred miles possible within the next 10 years, the future of plug in EV’s looks brighter and brighter. We ought to think in terms of electrifying the entire surface transportation system. Battery powered trucks for short haul freight. Battery powered buses and light rail for urban transportation. Electrified rail for long haul freight, and high speed passenger trains for short and middle distance interurban transportation. Aircraft should only be used for long distance passanger transportation.

    Electricity should come from nuclear generation since the sun and wind are to unreliable to provide 24 hour a day electricity.

  3. Sage Sweetwood says:

    I’m still looking for a little context. If we could replace 90% of the world’s cars with plugins(using clean electricity) over 40 years, how would that effect GHG levels? Would that make 350 ppm a possibility?

    In the same vein, Has anyone done an update of the Princeton ‘wedges’ senarios?

    I thought that approach did a good job of translating the needed change into understandable units — ie installing solar panels equal to the surface area of Conn gets us 1/7 of the way to 550ppm. Doubling auto gas milage gets another 1/7, etc.

    If we can ever generate a WWII style effort, we need to translate science into very understandable lahguage.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Sage Sweethood —- No, that doesn’t make 350 ppm possible (for many numdreds of years, anyway) as we are already at 385 ppm. What is required is to sequester biologically based carbon, reducing the amount of carbon in the active carbon cycle.

  5. Interested says:

    I was hoping someone could suggest to me some ways that a legislature could help promote, develop, ensure the success of the electric car industry. What barriers are out there, and what can we do to overcome those barriers?

  6. Paul K says:

    David B. Benson,
    Could you explain what sequestering biologically based carbon means. I have read a lot about sequestering CO2 produced by using fossil fuels, but this is the first I’ve seen proposing sequestering carbon itself.

  7. Sean says:

    One key argument I have heard you say a few times is that it requires electricity to generate the hydrogen. I hear rumors now and then of much more efficient means of generating hydrogen (i.e., without using lots of electricity). Are these just rumors which have been started by the current president’s administration, or are there in fact legitimate hydrogen production methods which are really not so bad?

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — There are at least two methods, both fully explained in various posts on

    The first is to co-fire biomass with fossil coal in a CCS reactor and sequester the resulting carbon dioxide. If more biomass is used than fossil coal, the result is carbon negative.

    Even better is to produce biocoal via hyprothermal carbonization and sequester the stuff in abandoned mines or caron landfills. There is a demonstration plant in The Netherlands which produces 75,000 tonnes of biocoal per year from forestry wastes (and generates 5 MW electric power on the side). This biocoal is currently being co-fired with biocoal in German coal reactors to produce electric power.

  9. Rex says:

    The National Hydrogen Association believes multi-lateral consumer adoption of both hydrogen and plug-in electric cars will help improve the environment. Even though many in fact have argued in favor of electric cars, the fact remains that fuel cell cars are electric cars. The same motor that is used in battery operated cars will be used in hydrogen fuel cell cars. Hydrogen is an energy carrier and can be used to store energy for later use, very similar to a battery. However, the difference is hydrogen, when produced from renewable resources emits only water as a by-product – virtually eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike a battery, the water emissions from using hydrogen won’t corrode or add toxic chemicals to the environment when disposed of.

    Additionally, hydrogen fuel cells can be constantly recharged with a steady input of hydrogen and the amount of energy able to be stored will never fluctuate, as opposed to conventional batteries that take far longer to recharge and decrease in energy storage capacity over time.

  10. Isaac McIsaac says:

    One aspect of the debate that seems to go under reported is the ideal nature of A Hydrogen/renewable electricity system. Hydrogen, by electroisis can be created at any time by a wind turbine, solar cell or water turbine. Since these sources are unreliable they do not necessarily deliver grid power when needed. Hydrogen, even with paying the thermodynamic penalty of electrolysis and compression can bank the energy for vehicles or other FC applications. This is not the case for a direct to grid use of renewables. Even if we get thousands of very high wattage charging stations installed(expensive infrastructure also) we still face massive peak requirements, whereas renewables, adding H to a pipeline system whenever possible creates stored energy that, once the pipeline is built, can be continental or national energy sponge available to consumers when required. Given the culture of cars tethering them to a plug seems to fly in the face of what most people want from them. Hardly anyone really needs a 4X4 SUV but…millions served

  11. Hi Joseph, I just finished reading your excellent Salon article.

    There are three parts of the general EV discussion that I disagree with.

    Firstly, by my estimates, an EV running off our current (US) grid emits about as much CO2 per mile as a hybrid does. So there is no gain until we shift our grid. And we have plenty of room to shift our grid – at least 50% (away from coal). You allude to this issue, but you state that EVs emit only a third. I don’t buy that number (the “1/3”), I suspect that it derives from comparing 20 mpg cars with ultra-lite EVs, as opposed to 50 mpg sedans with *equivalent* EV sedans.

    Second, batteries are much too expensive. Hybrids emit less than 100 tons of CO2 over their *lifetime*, so even at a $20/ton tax (which is high) with interest taken into account, the NPV of zero emissions is about $1000. Battery costs over the lifetime of an EV are more than an order of magnitude higher. So it makes little sense for government policy to push for much above $1000 in taxes and/or subsidies.

    Thirdly, the operating cost issue. At $0.13 per kWh and 0.4 kWh/mi, energy cost for an EV is about 5 cents per mile. At $4 per gallon and 50 mpg a hybrid costs 8 cents per gallon. At a US average of 12,000 miles per year, that’s a potential saving of $360 per year. Consumers can probably be enticed with a 3-year payoff, so that, also, sets a limit of around $1000.

    I wrote about much of this stuff on my blog ( so I thought I would invite you to comment. Is my math off?

  12. Meant to say “8 cents per mile” (not gallon).

  13. Jim Bullis says:

    I have not found adequate numbers, but it seems that Israel is now using quite a lot of coal that they import to fire their electric generator grid. Does anybody have a good reference on this? What I do see is that oil and gas reserves are not much and that they are forming some kind of agreement with Egypt to supply natural gas, but it is not clear when. So, like the US, most of the electricity for their cars and charging stations etc. would seem likely to come from coal. Can they shift their grid? That might not be so easy. I get ther impression that Israel is not quite so gluttonous as we are as far as driving big and inefficient vehicles, so maybe they can do better than we will probably do.

    To Peter S. Magnusson, I think your statement about no gain compared to a hybrid is an important fact, and it kind of agrees with my analysis if we are talking about a PRIUS hybrid. But you say there is room to shift our grid. How do we do this.

    We already have a substantial reserve capacity in natural gas fired facilities, but the cost of natural gas compared to coal makes it hard to get the US producers to use expensive natural gas.

    Hard numbers need to be used in these discussions, but in the interim, I note that the US is not looking to be in a great position to shift much of anything. Of course, in the context of dumping a trillion dollars or so minding other people’s business, it might seem that we could well afford to spend a trillion dollars to displace the coal fired facilities with wind towers. It is certainly enticing, but I am afraid the trillion for war is only now starting to be a bill that we are starting to pay. I see it in the $1.56 euro and $110 oil, not to mention the insane inflation in housing that led to near failure of banks, only halted temporarily by money maneuvers that will further shift the load to the future. For a country that does not seem to be producing enough to get trade balance under control, it may be tricky to find enough workers ready and able to pay taxes to cover any of these bills.

    My first approach is to actually use less energy. It takes a very different kind of car to do this. Yes, the PRIUS would be an improvement, and if that is the best we can do, then ok. But do not get tricked by the latest batch of “hybrids” or even electric or plug-in vehicles that simply shift more energy from oil to coal. These actually have economic merit and would help with oil dependency problems. But they will not help with CO2.

    It really is possible to travel in personal cars, quickly and efficiently, but they sure will look different.

  14. Jim Bullis says:

    Peter S Magnusson– I am told elsewhere that the price of coal has greatlyl increased recently. Your discussion of the coal reserves at your site helps to clarify that this is probably temporary, but even so, it is still far cheaper than alternatives. For those that like to ignore capital costs, it is easy to think that the future will be a world of solar power, or other zero fuel alternatives. Wind is not even going to be viable against 2cent power from coal.

    But for those interested in global warming, I interpret the plan by GM at:

    to mean that GM is fully aware of the 500 year supply of coal. They also would very much like to continue to build very profitable large cars. By use of electricity as a means for bringing energy to the cars, there is no real need to worry about efficiency. And the electric car will turn out to be the global warming devil.

    Page 12 of this plan shows a lot about how things will go in the GM view of the future.

    If people only glance at this plan they might think that the GM interest in reducing pollution has something to do with global warming. Look again.

    This is not to say that GM is to be faulted for acting in the interest of its stockholders. It is the public’s responsibility to make laws to control corporate actions.

  15. nec battery says:

    I tested this camera for a client. I didn’t have the light running for more than 15 minutes. The battery lasted approximately 6 hours before recharging. The LCD, however, had a few dead pixels – never saw this before. Tried returning for exchange and had to put up quite a fight. Anyone else seen this?

  16. Mack says:


    Not sure, but my understanding of EVs is that are damn few moving parts, and no need for filters, oil, lube, etc. Imagine the ensuing chaos as every ancillary business of the Auto industry goes belly-up. I’m not saying thats the one thing holding our Govt back from an aggressive implementation of EV technology…but it will produce casualties, and well, politicians don’t like that much….

  17. Cyril R. says:

    What’s also very promising about plugin hybrids is that’s it is such a potentially large schedulable demand. Say 100 million plugins with 5 kW max charge rate, that’s 500 million kW of theoretical power, schedulable over the day. That’s about the same as the average US electrical generation! Half a teraWatt!

    The plugins will almost all be parked 20+ hours of the day but can be fully charged (with the max 5 kW capacity) in just a few hours depending on total battery size. So that’s strongly schedulable.

    People talk about V2G. But what I see as more promising even if battery costs stays up, is G2V. Grid to vehicle – a huge schedulable demand. This doesn’t cyle the battery so battery replacement costs are not incurred. When the wind is up, charge more vehicles. When wind is down, wait a while – the cars are parked most of the time so this can be done. As long as every vehicle is charged when the user specifies it wants it, it will work fine. Perhaps the Internet can be used for managing and scheduling the grid demands such as plugins but also airconditioning and space heating.

    If (or rather, when) battery cost goes down (or ultracaps become available) they can be used as true storage, allowing even more intermittent and baseload integration. This will be a great help for a baseload grid as well as intermittent dominated grid, or a combination of both.

  18. david boss says:

    Need some answers on my electric car model which will run forever and no other fuel required with unlimited milage, can anyone other than the car industry build this for the people of the world, and who can I talk with about this project?

  19. Mike says:

    I found a great new blog which covers all electric cars all the time:

  20. For some of the facts and sources of facts on the cost and energy inefficiencies of hydrogen, see:

    Good luck on writing your article.

  21. vivek says:


    The hybrid car trend is something that i really believe shud pick up soon.
    in fact i came across an event that had used these hybird cars to convey their message of climate change and create awareness about the same.
    This might interest you

  22. I could say construction of such projects requires knowledge of engineering and management principles and business procedures, economics, and human behavior.

  23. gecko says:

    Regarding New York Times article: “Meaningful Numbers of Plug-In Hybrids Are Decades Away” at

    “The mass-introduction of the plug-in hybrid electric car is still a few decades away, according to new analysis by the National Research Council . . . , the study suggested that a “more realistic” scenario is closer to 13 million cars. That would represent 4 percent of the estimated 300 million cars that would be on the road by then.”

    Is this correct? Or, does it require qualification?

    [JR: It is inane. It comes from people who promised a hydrogen economy sooner than “a few decades away.” Mass introduction of plug ins will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.]

  24. gecko says:

    Inane is a wonderful description. Just not sure if you mean the New York Times, the National Research Council, or both.

    In any case, it seems that small vehicle transport and transit would be a much better core climate solution requiring less than 1% of the resources required for cars especially, when including infrastructure; where small vehicles are those vehicles that are small enough to be practically powered by human power.

  25. gecko says:

    Re: [JR: It is inane. It comes from people who promised a hydrogen economy sooner than “a few decades away.” Mass introduction of plug ins will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.]

    All well and good, but 10 years also seems like a long time especially, when there is some science that predicts that the Arctic Circle will completely lose ice cover possibly as soon as Summer 2013 and development costs for these new electric cars will cost billions of dollars.

    Quick-Build Development of Version 1.0 Small Vehicle Transit might cost a billion dollars providing greatly improved mobility solutions that are safe, low-cost, practical, and agile with emissions and environmental impact at 1% of current levels.

  26. gecko says:

    Joseph Romm, You may want to review the idea that electric cars be used a core solution.

    The violence of transportation systems based on cars is what allows them to persist as local transportation monopolies commanding huge amounts of badly needed resources and generating huge amounts of revenue streams.

    Ultimately, transportation systems based on cars will self-destruct if allowed to continue.

    It is just question if they will be allowed to cause the destruction of civilization as we know it; if they haven’t already been key in causing its destruction just like in that old Pat O’Brien movie DOA (Dead on Arrival).