Jan 31, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
The Economist was one of the first major publications to notice PHEVs, in a long story in December 2004 (see http://www.calcars.org/kudos.html or http://www.fuelcellsworks.com/Supppage1716.html. This week, they were included in a general roundup story, then in a second report focusing on the Plug-In Partners press conference:
The Economist, January 21-27, 2006, p. 77-78
Alternatives to petrol
Gentlemen, start your engines
[Story describes the growth of interest in
hybrids, questions their fuel economy, includes diesel trends, concludes:]
And those who don't like diesels can take other paths to clean and economical cars. The latest buzz is around "plug-in" hybrids. These are vehicles with even smaller than usual petrol engines, bigger batteries and the ability to recharge from the mains overnight. Given that the average American motorist travels barely 30 miles (50km) a day, the petrol engine in such a hybrid is there mainly to stop the driver being stranded by a flat battery.
Supporters of plug-ins, such as James Woolsey, a former head of America's Central Intelligence Agency and a man obsessed with the country's energy security, think such cars offer a clever answer to dependence on petrol. By shifting the donkeywork of supplying energy for transport to power stations --which generally burn coal -- they make drivers less vulnerable to the vagaries of the petroleum trade.
Carmakers, though, are skeptical about plug-ins. Publicly, they claim the batteries will not tolerate the rugged regimes of recharging envisaged by Mr. Woolsey and his fellow enthusiasts. Somoe people, however, suspect that the real reason for the skepticism is a worry that the successful marketing message which has launched the Prius and its rivals might be tarnished by memories of plug-in electric vehicles, such as General Motors' EV1, which flopped in the 1990s.
If plug-ins fail to catch on, another way of escaping the Middle East would be to burn ethanol made from crops. A blend of 85% ethanol with 15% petrol, known as E85, is gaining acceptance since it can be used in normal petrol engines, and advances in biotechnology promise cheaper ethanol by turning waste cellulose into the glucose from which ethanol is fermented. (At the moment most of it comes from maize seeds.) If that works, it would put paid to the old objections that "gasohol", as it is sometimes known, consumes more energy in the making than it releases in the engine. Further down the road, companies such as Ford and BMW see great possibilities for burning hydrogen in internal combustion engines 9long before it is common in fuel-cell electric cars). And then there are fuel cells themselves -- though they are still some way off. In the race to find alternatives to petroleum, the contenders are already on the grid.
Plug 'n Play
The Economist online
Jan 27, 2006
"FORGET hydrogen. Forget hydrogen. Forget hydrogen!" That was the rallying cry of Jim Woolsey, a former director of America's Central Intelligence Agency, at an energy-technology event this week in Washington, DC. He was referring to the idea that America might make itself less dependent on foreign oil by encouraging the development of hydrogen-powered cars. Instead, the former spy-chief has joined a curious coalition of environmental activists, national-security hawks, clean-energy experts and politicians to unveil a national consumer campaign in favour of "plug-in" hybrid-electric vehicles. Another surprising supporter of plug-ins, Orrin Hatch, a senator from Utah and a conservative Republican not known for supporting green causes, also dropped by to declare that this obscure technology could be the "silver bullet" America needs to end its addiction to oil.
The event, and the campaign it was designed to support, are the brainchildren of Austin Energy, a power-generating utility owned by the city of Austin, Texas. Austin Energy's campaign has already won the endorsement of dozens of cities and towns, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, as well as Austin itself, and also more than 100 utility companies. It now plans to collect millions of signatures from individuals requesting that big car firms start making plug-in hybrids.
Plug-in technology itself is a modified version of hybrid-electric cars such as the Toyota Prius. Instead of relying solely on energy from a petrol engine to charge them up, plug-in hybrids can, as their name suggests, be plugged into conventional power sockets. That allows a plug-in to travel 30-50 miles (50-80km) without petrol, rather than just a couple of miles, as with the Prius. Since most American motorists travel only 20-30 miles a day, they could drive in all-electric mode most of the time. This has the potential to lift fuel economy from the pitiful 20 miles per gallon common in American cars to 80mpg or more. But, as in a conventional hybrid, once the battery was drained, the petrol engine would kick in-thus ensuring that the driver was never stranded.
Enthusiasts reckon that this technology would dramatically reduce oil use (which is why the national-security types are interested) and curb greenhouse-gas emissions (which is why the environmentalists are interested, although this benefit would depend on what method was used to generate the electricity in the first place). And prototype plug-ins developed by the University of California, Davis, by the Electric Power Research Institute (the research arm of America's power industry), and by enthusiasts who have "hacked" Priuses to enable them to be connected to the grid, suggest that the idea can work in practice.
The main obstacle is that the longer range requires a bigger battery, and bigger batteries are heavier and more expensive. Andrew Frank, one of the researchers in the team at Davis, reckons that "retrofitting" a Prius-type hybrid with a big enough battery that uses conventional nickel-metal hydride technology adds about 70kg (150lb) to the vehicle's weight. Using lithium-ion batteries (common in mobile phones) adds less than 25kg, but costs much more. Still, it is an interesting idea, and if it came to pass it would radically restructure America's energy economics by shifting demand from the filling station to the power station. And, who knows, it might even shift the global balance of another sort of power-the political variety.