Blog MIT Tech Review: “The Wait Will Be Worth It” For Plug-in Hybrids

It will still be a few years – at least – before plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with much lighter, more reliable and less costly battery packs come to market, at truly consumer-friendly prices and in large numbers. Why should we care if and when that happens? Because: It gets very problematic very fast when we get much our current fuel for passenger vehicles, bus transit, air travel, surface freight, and operation of construction equipment from foreign regimes hostile to our nation and our very way of life; regimes which not coincidentally may also happen to fund terrorism directed at us. Then there are gas prices, now creeping back toward three dollars a gallon – not good. Add in the effects of fossil fuel emissions on air quality and greenhouse gas levels, and stir.
Hence the search for more secure and green sources of fuel, from renewables-powered electricity, and – one day hopefully not to far off – widely available, second-generation net-green biofuels (algae, biomass, cellulosic methanol, anyone?).
As the Natural Resources Defense Council points out, today’s popular hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius are able to run on electricity only when the battery is charged by the onboard gas engine or regenerative braking; in contrast, plug-in hybrids charge up, first, directly from household (or other similar) outlets, and when that electricity runs out then they run as conventional hybrids. They use less fuel than conventional hybrids, and won’t let you get stranded when the charge runs out, as can occur with purely electric vehicles. Although to be fair, reasonable trip planning can obviate that problem with EVs, and efforts are underway to develop a public charging infrastructure for EVs and PHEVs – one important example being Washington State Rep. Deb Eddy’s HB 1481, passed into law recently. Then too, some of the world’s top engineers, including those at U.S. national laboratories in the Northwest, are continuing vital research into how peak-period demand on the electrical grid can be managed in the future, when many, many fleet and personal PHEVs might be charging, during after-work hours. At the same time, engineers are also looking at how charging durations can be sped up – particularly in public locations along urban region arteries and interstate highway corridors.
Despite the promise of both PHEVs and EVs, informed skepticism isn’t hard to find these days, especially with respect to the plug-ins. Even from the quarters of our nation’s highest-profile advocate of green transportation, the White House. Earlier this year, prior to you and I becoming majority owners of ailing automaker General Motors, President Barack Obama’s advisors issued a “Viability Determination” that included this warning on GM’s new PHEV model, the Chevrolet Volt:

GM is at least one generation behind Toyota on advanced, “green” powertrain development. In an attempt to leapfrog Toyota, GM has devoted significant resources to the Chevy Volt. While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable.

More raindrops on the parade. The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog accented a recent General Accountability Office report warning federal agency fleet managers of the seeming risks inherent now in buying PHEVs; and even Toyota is wondering aloud, in the New York Times, about whether PHEVs will have a limited appeal, barring battery-pack breakthroughs.
But MIT Technology Review’s Energy Editor Kevin Bullis warns not to dismiss too quickly the distinct possibility that PHEVs will have a transformative effect as the technology ripens.

While the Volt might not be the perfect solution to reducing petroleum consumption–for one thing, at a rumored $40,000 apiece, it will be too expensive to sell in very large numbers–it seems at the least to be a step in the right direction. Indeed, it represents an overall direction that the administration supports, as seen by its emphasis on plug-in hybrids….GM will likely sell all of its first run of Volts, even at their high cost (more than 48,000 people have indicated that they want to buy the Volt). And economies of scale and advances in battery technology could bring costs down, allowing more people to buy the car. The wait would be worth it. Eventually, plug-in hybrids could allow most people to commute without using any gasoline.

Even with “dirty”-powered electricity there’s a net green gain at the tailpipe, versus an engine burning traditional gasoline. And if the electricity comes from renewables, as policy-makers and the private sector will increasingly seek to ensure, that’s even better. Meanwhile, GM has opened a new advanced battery laboratory. Call it a sign of the times. But what about PHEV mileage? Some pilot program tests drew skepticism when miles per gallon turned out to be less than hyped. Turns out there’s a fairly simple answer, report experts interviewed by National Public Radio’s “Market Watch” in a segment aired just two days ago: achieving top-range PHEV mileage depends on driver education, and sometimes, making sure to plug in your plug-in when it’s resting.

James Francfort tracks plug-in hybrids for the Department of Energy:
JAMES FRANCFORT: We’ve demonstrated the potential to get 100, 200, 300, up to 400 miles-per-gallon depending on how the vehicles are driven.
Trouble is in early tests, Francfort found plug-ins hybrids weren’t necessarily getting much better gas mileage than conventional hybrids.
Paul Scott of Plug in America says it’s all about teaching consumers how to drive the cars.
PAUL SCOTT: You have to obviously charge the batteries.
Some test drivers weren’t, and that meant the cars relied more on gas. And gunning the engine does the same thing. So if the cars are sold without any thought to consumer training:
SCOTT: Well, in that case then people might not buy them.
But if consumers are properly educated, Ed Kjaer (of Southern California Edison) says drivers could change their priorities.

Stay tuned. This one’s got legs.