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Plug-In Car to the Rescue?

Driving toward energy independence.

David Morris 27 Apr
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I imagine driving a car without consuming petroleum, or generating pollution, or making noise. Imagine getting the equivalent of 100 to 150 miles per gallon. Imagine that every time you drove, you pumped money into the local economy, rather than sending it to distant shores. Imagine that this car was not only ideal personal transportation but also a driving force, quite literally, for transforming both agriculture and electric-power generation in ways that benefited farmers and urban dwellers alike.

Farfetched dreams? Not at all. All of the necessary technologies have been developed and road-tested in the battery-powered car, the hybrid gas-electric car the flexible-fuel car. All that's needed is to combine these approaches in a single vehicle that merges their advantages and eliminates their shortcomings.

The hybrid car, introduced in the United States only in 2000, is already a bestseller. More than 200,000 hybrid cars ply U.S. roads. But they suffer one major limitation: they can't go more than a mile or two on electricity alone. (Indeed, GM and Honda hybrids can't go anywhere without the gasoline engine running.) This makes them glorified gasoline-powered vehicles, with an electric motor assist. But a Toyota Prius or a Ford Escape can be fitted with an expanded battery pack, rechargeable from a household outlet, that would let it travel 20 to 50 miles between chargings. That is farther than many Americans drive every day.

Driving on electric power has many benefits. Electric vehicles, or EVs, are quiet and nonpolluting. Even taking into account increased power plant emissions, EVs still produce less pollution than gasoline-powered vehicles. And EVs are remarkably efficient; achieving the equivalent of over 100 miles per gallon -- twice the mileage of the best existing hybrid.

Expanding the range

Of course, the Achilles heel of the EV has been the cost and performance limitations of its batteries; sooner or later, most motorists want to go more than 50 miles without stopping to recharge.

A plug-in hybrid overcomes that limitation by having a backup engine -- but instead of the gasoline engines used today, it could easily be a flexible-fuel engine of the type now powering more than 4 million vehicles on U.S. roads. These engines operate on any combination of ethanol and gasoline, and the additional cost to manufacture one has fallen to about $100.

But ethanol derived from corn or other biomass also has its Achilles heel. Current U.S. gasoline and diesel consumption is far too high to replace with plant-derived fuels. Planting all available agricultural acres in the country with fast-growing trees or switchgrass could generate only enough fuel to displace about 25 percent of current vehicle consumption.

Plug-in hybrids, however, overcome this biomass limitation by using electric power to reduce fuel consumption by as much as 85 percent. This lets biofuels become primary fuels rather than minor additives.

Rewired power grid

With the introduction of plug-ins, the transportation and electricity sectors begin to merge. Utilities would probably offer EV owners the option of recharging their batteries at a lower cost at night, when demand is low. No new power plants would be needed.

Indeed, widespread use of plug-in hybrids could address the principal disadvantage of wind turbines to generate electricity -- the absence, so far, of an efficient way to store the power until it is needed. Wind is an intermittent power source, making voltage only when the turbines are spinning. But utilities need to dispatch electricity when their customers demand it.

The batteries in thousands of plug-in hybrids, connected to the grid through two-way household outlets, could bridge this gap between generation and delivery. Indeed, some studies estimate utilities might pay EV owners $1,000 to $2,000 a year for using their batteries to help balance and stabilize the grid. (That's in addition to saving perhaps $600 a year at the gas pump.)

One can even imagine tens of thousands of very small wind turbines sprouting up at homes across the country, built primarily to fuel vehicles. Consider the arithmetic: today, owners of large wind turbines get paid about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) when they send the electricity over the grid to distant buyers. A farmer making wind power for his own use displaces retail electricity priced at 5 to 8 cents per kWh. But if that electricity is used in a plug-in hybrid, displacing gasoline, it is worth about 32 cents per kWh.

Politicians catching on

How futuristic are plug-in, flexible-fuel vehicles? Ford has introduced the first flex-fuel hybrid. Daimler Chrysler has about 100 plug-in vehicles on the road. Most interesting, perhaps, is the recent announcement by several companies of a plug-in conversion kit for Prius and Escape owners. One Canadian company has informed me that an order of 1,000 kits would cut the price in half (to between $4,000 and $5,000). At such a price, payback could come in less than seven years. And the costs will undoubtedly continue to decline.

The state of Minnesota, to use one example, has several advantages that could make it a leader in advancing these vehicles: an established ethanol industry, abundant wind power, plenty of gas stations selling E85 (half the national total, in fact), a top-notch automotive engineering program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Not to mention the Ford Motor Co.'s St. Paul plant, now facing an uncertain future; it once made an all-electric pickup truck, as well as a flex-fuel pickup. In the future, it could make plug-in, flex-fuel hybrids on assembly lines powered by its own hydroelectric turbines.

A bill that begins to put in place a plug-in, flexible-fuel strategy is on the floor of the Minnesota State Senate and is wending its way through the Minnesota House. In five committees there has not been a single negative vote in either the Republican-controlled House or the Democrat-controlled Senate. Perhaps such unanimity sends American car companies a message.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn., and director of its New Rules project. He is the author of the report, A Better Way To Get There From Here (PDF).  [Tyee]

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