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2010′s Triumphs & Challenges for Plug-In Vehicles

By Joe Romm  

"2010′s Triumphs & Challenges for Plug-In Vehicles"


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Plus an amazing Renault commercial

It’s almost like Renault reads Climate Progress (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“).  My friend Felix Kramer has an overview of the year from the perspective of Calcars.org, which he runs as part of his non-profit work promoting PHEVs.

Welcome to 2010: The Year of the Plug-In Car. Here’s our take on where we are as we enter this thrilling time.

Plus some new opportunities and ways to get involved, two important events in Washington, DC in the next four weeks, and our thanks to many of the people who helped us come so far. We encourage you to forward see this and other CalCars-News messages as resources you can forward.

WE’VE BEEN WORKING TO GET TO THIS MOMENT. For CalCars, it’s been eight years. Some people we know have been on a two-to-four-decade-long quest. Soon we’ll be driving safe, affordable, highway-capable plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles from the world’s major carmakers and some brash startups. The first cars will arrive in selected markets this year. Next year, people in many states, provinces and countries will finally be able to simply go into dealer showrooms and buy them. Some skeptics, engulfed by the reality of industry progress, now fall back to ask, “Will any but the early adopters buy them?” Of course, it’s too soon to tell. We expect that plug-ins’ comparative advantages and social benefits combined with initial subsidies will eventually lead to their full competitiveness on features and price, broad market penetration, and eventual dominance.

PLUG-INS COME TO CALIFORNIA: This year, a family like ours, in the early-adopter state of CA, has the happy prospect of replacing our Toyota Prius aftermarket PHEV conversion with a new PHEV, such as the Chevy Volt (or the pricier Fisker Karma). For local driving, we’ll likely replace our Toyota Camry HEV with a 100-mile-range EV such as the Nissan LEAF or CODA sedan. CalCars Tech Lead Ron Gremban hopes to follow a similar path. For details on these long-awaited debuts, see CalCars’ PHEV listing at http://www.calcars.org/carmakers.html and Plug In America’s broader tracker at http://www.pluginamerica.org/plug-in-vehicle-tracker.html .

CARMAKERS START THEIR MARKETING EFFORTS: The auto industry’s giant marketing machines will help immeasurably in putting plug-in cars as drivers’ next choice. Already, it’s often no longer necessary to explain “plug-in hybrid” to most people. Instead we ask, “Have you’ve seen ads for the Chevy Volt?” Then we say “That’s a PHEV.” Then, if they want, we explain how they work and their benefits! We invite you to watch a poetic, inspiring ode to the EV, “Renault. Drive the Change.” — called by Plug In America’s Paul Scott “the first ad of what will become a steadily growing genre.” It’s just two minutes at http://evsandenergy.blogspot.com/2010/01/first-of-new-wave-in-ev-adverts.html [or the YouTube video above].

CALCARS MEETS INITIAL GOALS: On October 21, in Detroit, we “declared victory” on PHEVs — see http://www.calcars.org/calcars-news/1078.html or listen at http://www.calcars.org/audio-video.html#audiotag . Of course, we still have lots to do to ensure this commercialization succeeds. A vast informal network of local, regional and national coalitions working with manufacturing, supplier and infrastructure companies has emerged. They and we will do our parts.

WE STILL HAVE TO COMBAT MISINFORMATION. In a world where stray comments gain instant credibility and mindshare, we see periodic campaigns and isolated efforts to raise questions about vehicle electrification. We still encounter those who think it’s business-as-usual for fossil fuels while we wait for some “technology breakthroughs” or vast infrastructure. In fact, plug-ins, built with today’s batteries, charging mainly at home at night, can arrive as fast as carmakers can build them. We still hear from those who, intentionally or not, mistakenly position the strategy to “displace petroleum with electricity” as a COMPETITOR instead of a COMPLEMENT to essential efforts to conserve by improving conventional vehicles’ efficiency and reducing their use. We haven’t heard the last from advocates who propose vast expansions of liquid/gaseous fuels — including natural gas, biofuels or hydrogen fuel cells — as alternatives rather than supplements to electricity.

And we’ve barely encountered the first volleys from fossil fuel suppliers. Taken together, these companies are by far the world’s most powerful industry. They’re also the most destructive and deadly, factoring in all the consequences of extraction, production, transportation and combustion, plus the impact on every nation’s public and private-sector integrity, economy, and national security. With so many stakeholders waiting for any hiccup, false start or overstatement, we all need to be ready to defend our strategy, whose strengths are predicated on “solutions good enough to get started,” a transformed cleantech economy, and electricity’s fundamental advantages: “cleaner, cheaper, and domestic.”

BUT NEW VEHICLES CAN’T GET US THERE QUICKLY ENOUGH! We’re starting to see a growing recognition that the world needs to adopt a TRANSPORTATION EQUIVALENT to the established retrofit approach that’s such a no-brainer for buildings. Even the most optimistic scenarios show only tens of millions of new plug-in vehicles globally in the next 10-20 years — tiny fraction of the more than one billion vehicles we’ll soon have. We see people beginning to recognize that large vehicles in particular stay on the road for decades, so it makes sense to “fix” gas guzzlers so they can plug in. Along with other obvious low-hanging fruit like conservation steps and installing low-cost black-carbon filters on diesel engines, these are essential and realistic pathways. These approaches can advance reduced fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by a precious decade, while creating tens of thousands of green jobs and accelerating the expansion of the supply chain needed for the long-term electrification of transportation.

CALCARS’ NEW MISSION: While continuing to promote “Successful Commercialization of PHEVS ASAP,” CalCars’ activities increasingly focus on recruiting more advocates to the “Big Fix” — our campaign to convert a substantial portion of the vehicles already on the road to EVs or PHEVs. We still encounter some wariness about the specific technologies and expected costs to convert internal combustion vehicles. This will change in three ways, just as it did in 2004-2006 for PHEVs: We’ll get more convincing and compelling prototypes that show what’s possible. We’ll see business models that work in high volumes. And we’ll help new coalitions emerge.

We can’t do it ourselves. So we continue to recruit for a broad campaign whose partners we’ll soon announce. Organizations and high-profile individuals can endorse it now — see http://www.calcars.org/calcars-bigfix-endorse.pdf.

DO YOU KNOW THAT GO-GETTER WHO WANTS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Twenty-five years ago, Steve Jobs famously recruited Pepsi executive John Sculley to Apple by asking, “Do you want to sell sugar water all your life or do you want a chance to change the world?” Recently, the charismatic Shai Agassi built his vision for an EV solution at Better Place. Similarly, we seek a well-healed, well-connected serial entrepreneur with a background in autos, technology, or finance, to accelerate the efforts of the startups gaining traction in the gas-guzzler conversion space (many listed at http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html and profiled at http://www.calcars.org/calcars-beyond-new-plug-ins.pdf ) and other companies yet to appear. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that candidate to hit the ground running and transform today’s fledgling efforts into a profitable global industry whose conversion designers, integrators, component suppliers, and installers will offer green jobs, energy savings, operating cost reductions, and environmental and energy security benefits.

CHANGES IN TODAY’S CONVERSION MINI-INDUSTRY: The small hybrid-to-PHEV conversion companies that helped so much to increase PHEVs’ visibility and get them in the hands of utilities, government testing labs and committed evangelizers can now set themselves new goals. They can lower their selling prices via scale, gain government approvals for their designs, and add warranties to position them to sell to a million-plus hybrid car owners. By partnering with suppliers, larger integration companies, and ultimately major automakers, they can expand to the far larger market of drivers looking to fix their non-hybrid internal combustion vehicles.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY EVENTS: We’ll be spending two weeks at the end of the month on the East Coast. In addition to some private events and meetings in Boston and New York to promote the Big Fix, we’ll first be attending the Electric Drive Transportation’s broad industry Conference and Annual Meeting, January 26-28, held in conjunction with the Washington DC Auto Show. See the full program and sign up at http://electricdrive.org.

The following week, again in DC, I’m speaking on gas-guzzler conversions at the Renewable Energy Technology Conference & Exhibition http://www.retech2010.com/ organized by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). RETECH2010 includes 250 leaders from industry and the administration, including presentations by key officials in the Department of Energy, to over 5,000 attendees. We’re on the “Advanced Vehicles and Batteries” panel http://www.retech2010.com/business-conference#B7.

We encourage you to attend both events in DC. We’ll soon update the CalCars Events page with these and other events — including http://www.plugin2010.com July 26-29 in San Jose, CA. We’ll also be advancing our Big Fix agenda at the annual TED Conference in early February in Long Beach, CA.

CALCARS AS AN ORGANIZATION: Our sustained effort for over eight years by a small core group with growing concentric rings of advisors, supporters and proponents has been a stunning success. CalCars-News is currently received directly by over 7,000 subscribers in the auto industry, government, and advocacy communities, and our comments are amplified frequently by online, broadcast and print media. Yet just as our original goals are being realized and we see growing receptiveness to our new objectives, we lack the resources we need to do more. At one peak time, in 2006-2008, we gained two years of substantial support from Google.org. Over the years, we’ve received modest contributions from individuals, other foundations, and a few companies and utilities. But we’ve not received ANY federal or state funds — or funding from the venture capital community or the newly funded startups that have benefited from our work. At the moment, we’re more “bare-bones” than we’ve ever been, essentially running on fumes, cutting back on events where our costs aren’t covered. While this is personally difficult, especially for me and Ron (full-time since 2001 and 2004 respectively), both of us are thankful to have had the opportunity to engage in the most satisfying, effective, and consequential work in our lives.

SUPPORT CALCARS: Privately we get frequent encouragement and praise from individuals who say they are stretched to the limit and wish they could support our efforts. (If your own financial position allows, we could really use your tax-deductible contributions (even in the $10-$100 range) at http://www.calcars.org/sponsor.html.

‹ Rolling Stone on “The Climate Killers: 17 polluters and deniers who are derailing efforts to curb the climate catastrophe.”

A pretty good, but poorly titled, BBC video on weather vs. climate ›

18 Responses to 2010′s Triumphs & Challenges for Plug-In Vehicles

  1. Shirley says:

    Dear Joe,

    I know this blog after reading Time printed on Oct. 5, 2009. I am writing an article to introduce you and your blog in Chinese for a non-profit green related blog.

    May I know if you are a vegan or vegetarian for eliminating global warming? If not, do you support the Meat Free Monday activity, which funded by Paul McCartney (pls see http://www.supportmfm.org/index.cfm)

    If you are aware of that more than 51% of greenhouse gas emission is from livestock, would you change the way you eat?
    (pls see Livestock and Climate Change, WorldWatch Nov/Dec 2009 P10~P19 or http://www.suprememastertelevision.com/tw/bbs/board.php?bo_table=download_tw&wr_id=6042&goto_url=&page=2&url=link1&year=&month=&day)

    You are a norbal hero to our earth. Thank you very much for your time in advance.

    Best regards,

  2. Plug-in cars are a sad way of dreaming about a sustainable way to keep business as usual. Electricity is not a different, separate kind of power for vehicles. The outlet in your garage gets its power from the grid, more than half of which is coal generated.

    “America – and much of the world — is becoming increasingly electrified. Today, more than half of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. For the foreseeable future, coal will continue to be the dominant fuel used for electric power production. The low cost and abundance of coal is one of the primary reasons why consumers in the United States benefit from some of the lowest electricity rates of any free-market economy.”

    Lynn Shwadchuck
    Diet for a small footprint and a small grocery bill

  3. Furthermore, foreign dependency on lithium could take the place of dependency on petroleum.

    “The United States has supplies of lithium, but if demand for lithium exceeded domestic supplies, or if lithium from overseas is less expensive, the United States could substitute reliance on one foreign resource (oil) for another (lithium),” warned the GAO.

    “Yes, it is a very real possibility,” Gaffigan confirmed when CNSNews.com asked about the possibility of lithium dependency.



    To make matters worse, while lithium-ion batteries are attractive because they produce insignificant levels of toxic waste, the extraction of lithium could have harmful environmental consequences.

    “Extracting lithium from locations where it is abundant, such as South America, could pose environmental challenges that would damage the ecosystems in this area,” the GAO report pointed out.

  4. J.A. Turner says:

    Where I live, grid power is four percent coal. Studies have found that electic cars produce less emissions than gasoline cars even when you consider the emissions of the power generation. And as the grid gets cleaner, electric cars get cleaner.

    Unlike oil, lithium is recyclable. And lithium isn’t the only material batteries can be made from.

    PHEVs are a bridge to full EVs. Once battery capacity and cost come down far enough, it will be cheaper to leave out the hybrid bits and go for full electric drive.

    For me, the real issue is that for some interim period we’re going to need ubiquitous charging stations, much like we used to have pay phones everywhere. Since the battery capacity on my PHEV Prius only gets me to work and not back home, the lack of a charging station means I conly get half of the benefit the battery pack could be giving me. Likewise, there are few places other than home where I can charge my car. Just once, I vacationed at a motel that had a convenient outlet in its parking lot that they let me use to charge my car. I’m afraid that there might well be a very slow uptake of all types of EVs if there aren’t places to plug in.

  5. Leif says:

    I could imagine hotels and motels offering low or even free over night charging for EVs. Perhaps backed up with support for locally produced wind or solar generation! One extra costumer per night would more than cover the costs.
    Here in Washington State I happily pay a surtax of $0.015 / kW to support Green Power. If fossil fuel were justifiably charged just fractions of the costs of the environmental destruction they produce my renewable power would be less expensive even today!

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Electric cars are fine, but I advocate
    mass transit,

    {Second attempt to post this comment.]

  7. Paul Scott says:

    The questions on charging infrastructure are relevant, but you should know that there is a major effort under way right now to locate the best sites for chargers. Over 10 companies are vying in the market to supply the SAE J1772 standard charging stations. Over 10,000 stations will be installed from Vancouver, BC to San Diego and also some in AZ and TN. That’s just for this year. In 2011, tens of thousands will be installed as the rollout of plug-in cars comes to more and more states.

    As for Lynn Shwadchuck’s comments about EVs not being a good solution, I’d have to ask if she drives an oil burner. If so, she’s heavily polluting her air and the air of her children as well as all her neighbor’s children. When she buys gas, 60% of her money goes out of the country, some of it going to the terrorists who buy the bombs and bullets that kill our soldiers.

    If instead, she changed her source of electricity to a renewable source and bought an EV, she wouldn’t be hurting anyone else, and all of her money would stay domestic.

  8. espiritwater says:

    Shirley, even if there were no global warming, people should not eat meat because of the hellish conditions animals endure so humans can eat their bodies. Stun guns sometimes don’t work and animals are often skinned alive… it’s a production issue; so many animals per hour. Cows smell the blood and fear and trample over each other in an effort to escape, sometimes breaking their legs. Animals raised for food are treated like “things”, not the sentient creatures they are! (I’ve read lots about this from “Why Vegan”). Raising animals in order to eat them pollutes our water, reduces fresh water for us, is the main reason for de-forestation in the tropics and is the cause of about 50% GHG emissions. Many doctors tell patients to omit animals from their diet in times of serious health problems. Perhaps Global Warming will force humans to re-evaluate their priorities and live in harmony with nature and other creatures.

  9. Chad says:

    I have at least three or four friends who are considering buying a plug-in when they become available…and not one of these people is particularly an environmentalist. Rather, they are all techno-geeks. I think there is a lot more interest in these vehicles than just the hard-core treehuggers.

    Unfortunately, I am stuck with my Prius for the next ten years or so. Oh well.

  10. BBHY says:


    I think you are overlooking the fact that oil refineries use vast amounts of electric power. For instance, Valero’s Sunray Tx, refinery uses 50 MW.

    It takes about 2.6 kWh of electric power to refine a gallon of gasoline. An electric car can go 25 miles on that much electricity. So, your average gasoline vehicle is already consuming about the same amount of electricity as an electric car, and then burning gasoline on top of that!

    Nice try on the lithium, but it is actually very abundant, including plenty of reserves right here in the USA. You should keep in mind that unlike fossil fuels, the lithium is not consumed when you operate the car. At the end of the batteries lifetime, the lithium can be recycled. It is estimated that there is enough lithium available for about 100 billion cars.

  11. Rick says:

    Saving the world by selling more cars? no that won’t work – not even with the plug – sorry

  12. Obviously electric cars are an incremental improvement over gas guzzlers. I’m just looking at the big picture and wishing we were re-tooling the world for better mass transit instead of cranking out new cars and believing that would solve our predicament. Have a look at the footprint of building one car. A different kind of individual car will only make a small change to the total addition of carbon, and none at all if there are many millions more cars in the ‘developing’ world.

    Regarding keeping dollars domestic by burning coal in power plants – I’m Canadian and deeply ashamed of the tar sands project.

    Diet for a small footprint and a small grocery bill

  13. Stuart says:

    Many motels up here in MN still have outlets in the parking lots for guests to plug in their block heaters when it gets below zero.

    Which leads to a couple of questions – how does cold temperatures affect range for plug-ins? How could a pure electric vehicle provide heat? I’m not trying to troll, just curious as to how it would work. Would us cold-climate folks be stuck with IC (and increasingly expensive fuel) while the south moves on to electrics?

  14. dhogaza says:

    “Obviously electric cars are an incremental improvement over gas guzzlers. I’m just looking at the big picture and wishing we were re-tooling the world for better mass transit instead of cranking out new cars and believing that would solve our predicament.”

    False dichotomy. Portland, Oregon (where I live) has the highest per capita ownership of hybrids in the country (perhaps the world, the Prius is as ubiquitous as VW vans were three or four decades ago).

    We’ve also been investing heavily in light rail, streetcars, and in the warmer months about 10% of commuter trips to the downtown core are by bike.

    Years ago, Oregon and Washington heavily invested in upgrading the Portland to Seattle Amtrak line to “medium speed” technology and are lobbying to be funded to upgrade to true high-speed rail (it’s one of the routes under consideration by the Obama administration).

    Adding more EVs or more PHEVs can only help, and it’s not like we’ll stop doing all those other things when they become widely available …

  15. Stuart says:

    I thought more about my heat question and an RV type propane furnace would probably work nicely. I am still curious about cold weather range.

  16. Brendan says:

    @BBHY: Where did you get your statistics for electricity used in refining? They seem reasonable, but I haven’t been able to locate anything reliable, and would love to have a source. I think your EV miles/KWh are a bit optimistic though. Most OEM cars are getting around 4 miles/KWh for cars that would probably get around 30mpg on gas. So these cars would go about 10 miles on the amount of electricity used per gallon of refined gasoline that you quote. To compare apples to apples, that’s still pretty impressive if a third of the power used by an EV is offset by electricity that would have been needed for refining gas, otherwise.

    @Rick: Saving the world by telling Californians (or Americans in general) that they can’t have a car won’t work either, since 99% of them will ignore your pleas. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good.

    @Stuart: I think this is something that the car makers are continuing to struggle with at this point, per my conversation with Nissan on New Year’s Eve when they were showing off the all-electric LEAF. Currently they are using resistance heat, which they stated severely impacts the range (to the tune of about 4x as much impact as running the A/C). I suspect auto companies will turn to using the air conditioner as a heat pump for >40F conditions, but it will still be a problem in freezing conditions. I also suspect that pre-heating the cabin by using power directly from the charging station will also come in vogue (accomplishing something similar to the warm-up remote starters you can buy for your ICE car). I’m guessing these will be the types of issues that will be looked at in more detail in the second generation vehicles. Home converters have gone the propane route, but I doubt the automakers would go that way due to safety and image concerns. Lithium batteries handle the cold better than the lead acids people normally think of. Pre-heating the batteries off the charger could further reduce weather related range issue. For longer range vehicles and driving, the internal resistance of the batteries will allow large packs to heat themselves long before they are depleted. These issues aren’t deal breakers, but something that will probably become more visible with wider adoption. I’m sure the OEMs expect the early adopters will be more forgiving, giving them time to come up optimal solutions. It’s no accident that the cars will be introduced along the mild west coast and in warm places like Arizona.

  17. fftf says:

    Nice article! But we need electricity for these clean Renault/Nissan cars from the clean, cheap, and reliable nuclear powerplants, like the French do – not the icky coal and gas, like we do. Or better yet than the French, LFTR and IFR to close the fuel cycle and get rid of the waste.

  18. gecko says:

    gecko says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    January 10, 2010 at 10:19 am
    Small vehicle transit is the immediate and extremely comprehensive long-term solution for global human mobility. Electric cars and hybrids do not come close.

    (repeated comment not posted)