The Sacramento Bee ran an article this week on how, “Plug-in hybrids promise more power, greater efficiency.”
This may not seem like a big deal, but remember this is a state led by hydrogen-Hummer-driving Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised the first statewide “Hydrogen Highway. ” That dream has all but died, as expected, killed largely by the reality of plug-in hybrids (see here).
After many interviews with the newspaper over the years about hydrogen, this was my first one where I wasn’t the one to bring up plug ins. As I told the newspaper:
“Plug-in hybrids are going to be the vehicle story of the next few years,” said Joseph Romm, an energy policy expert with the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
The full Sac Bee article is below:
Move over, Prius, the plug-in hybrid is coming.
With a recent mandate that effectively requires major automakers to put at
least 58,000 gas-electric vehicles on California roads by 2014, the state
is prodding new technology forward.
After years in the prototype stage, auto industry giants and startup
companies are investing, researching and building prototype vehicles that
can be fueled either with gas or electricity from a wall socket.
General Motors and Toyota plan to launch versions by late 2010, while Honda
and some smaller manufacturers are expected to follow.
“Plug-in hybrids are going to be the vehicle story of the next few years,”
said Joseph Romm, an energy policy expert with the Center for American
Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Before they become as prevalent as a Prius, however, plug-ins must clear a
few hurdles, mainly involving battery technology.
“The largest issues are battery cost, life and reliability,” said Menahem
Anderman, a Yuba County-based consultant who specializes in automotive
The 300-pound battery pack General Motors is building into its Chevrolet
Volt plug-in, for instance, can’t yet deliver its promised 40-mile range
and the long-term durability needed for a mass-market car, according to a
report by a hybrid technology research team at the University of
GM says the batteries are progressing, but many experts doubt they’ll be
road-ready in time for a scheduled 2010 launch.
The problem: Batteries tend to perform best, and last longest, when
discharged gently. But ordinary driving — accelerating up a freeway onramp,
say — demands big bursts of power. While a huge battery pack — several
times what GM wants — can handle that load, smaller ones wear out quickly
under the strain and have problems with overheating. Big battery packs also
are more expensive.
That has battery manufacturers and entrepreneurs hustling to find a fix.
One of those is AFS Trinity, an energy technology company staffed primarily
by former Lawrence Livermore Lab engineers who’ve developed the XH-150, a
Backed by $50 million in venture capital, AFS Trinity believes its patented
design resolves some battery problems. The company claims it has created
the only functioning plug-in hybrid with a 40-mile all-electric range.
AFS Trinity founder and CEO Ed Furia, an organizer of the first Earth Day
in 1971 and former federal EPA administrator, is in Sacramento this week,
meeting with state officials and showing off his prototypes — a pair of
modified Saturn Vue Green Line hybrids.
They’re designed to get around the battery problem by using ultracapacitors
– a scaled-up version of the devices that allow a small camera battery to
provide the burst of electricity needed to power a flash.
The car’s instrument panel looks ordinary, save for two analog gauges on
the dashboard. One shows the battery level, the other the capacitor charge.
While Furia’s Vue is driving at a steady speed, the batteries charge up the
capacitors. On a hard acceleration, the capacitor acts as a booster, giving
the electric motor the juice it wants, and taking much of the load off the
During a recent test drive, Furia pulled over to the shoulder of Interstate
5 just north of downtown to show how the capacitors work. What came next is
clearly his favorite part of a test-drive.
“Anybody have any health problems?” he said, jokingly.
Then Furia stomped on the accelerator, and the car rocketed to 65 mph.
Conventional hybrids have a reputation for being gutless, yet Furia takes
pride in his vehicle’s power. “There’s the perception that if you get an
electric car, you give something up,” he said.
Furia has filed a number of patents on the capacitor design and hopes to
sell the idea to a major automaker. If mass produced, he estimates, the
XH-150 would cost $8,700 more than the standard Saturn Vue Green Line.
Based on prototypes like the XH-150 now being tested on California roads,
plug-ins promise to put the fuel economy of today’s hybrids to shame.
Comparing dollars per mile, internal-combustion engines are not as
efficient as electric motors. It costs around $1 for enough energy to drive
the XH-150 40 miles on battery power. Since most drivers are on the road
less than 40 miles most days, the potential savings are huge, especially
with $4-a-gallon gas.
What’s more, a vehicle running on electricity has no smog-forming tailpipe
emissions, and, even when pollution from electricity generation is taken
into account, emits less greenhouse gases than a similarly sized vehicle
burning fossil fuel.
Dan Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC
Davis, said the next few years will likely see companies large and small
producing different riffs on plug-in hybrids, seeking the combination of
sticker price, electric range and overall fuel efficiency consumers want.
“The industry is going to be experimenting for many years trying to figure
out how best to design the tech in a way that consumers will value it,”
Sperling said. “They have to figure out what people are really willing to
pay a premium for.”