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Toronto Star: PHEVs on a Roll
Oct 16, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Tyler Hamilton at the Toronto Star watches developments in PHEVs more closely than almost any other reporter -- and looks ahead to their implications. Increasingly, he has news to report from Canada...

Plug-in hybrids on a roll New breakthroughs and imperatives are making way-cleaner cars possible, marketable, and maybe inevitable; just look at hybrids. It's a great opportunity - that shortsighted policy-makers may be setting the Canadian economy up to miss Toronto Star Oct. 16, 2006. 09:25 AM TYLER HAMILTON­NASApp/­cs/­ContentServer?pagename=thestar/­Layout/­Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1160949009516&call_pageid=968350072197&col=969048863851

CAPTION: Dave Modisette plugs the charging cable into his General Motors EV1 electric powered car at the Arden Fair Shopping Mall in Sacramento, Calif., June 19, 2001.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the largest utility in California, did something a tad unusual last month. It added an insert in the bills of its 5.1 million customers, asking them to pressure the world's largest automakers to design hybrid vehicles that can be charged from a 120-volt household outlet.

"Imagine," the utility said, "plugging your car into a standard electric socket in the evening, then driving to work or on errands the next morning without using a drop of gas."

It then urged its customers to sign an online petition, asking the auto giants to begin making so-called plug-in hybrids.

"The petition basically says, `If you build it, we will buy it,'" PG&E vice-president Bob Howard told Reuters news service. "Automakers aren't convinced there are enough buyers. That's why PG&E is hoping to harness the power of its 5.1 million customers."

Plug-in hybrids are similar to regular hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, but with one key difference: They're built with larger battery systems that can be charged by plugging the car into an electrical socket. They are also designed to run in battery-dominant mode for the first 55 kilometres, switching to the gas-powered engine only for long trips or to assist in aggressive acceleration.

"As now envisioned, plug-ins would be about 50 per cent more fuel-efficient than standard hybrids, because they could run much longer on electricity alone," according to a recent report from AllianceBernstein LP, one of the world's largest asset management firms.

Never mind fuel-cell cars powered by hydrogen, which is a challenge to store and would require a massive overhaul to our fuelling infrastructure. "Because most of the necessary infrastructure for plug-ins is already in place - many homes and garages have outlets capable of recharging plug-ins - the transition to plug-ins should be low cost."

Now, imagine the engine component of a plug-in hybrid is designed to run on biodiesel or 100 per cent cellulose ethanol. Under such a scenario, you're off crude oil completely and tailpipe CO{-2} emissions are effectively carbon-neutral.

Some automakers are finally getting the message. In June, Toyota announced that it is advancing its research and development into plug-in hybrids and is "currently working on a next-generation vehicle that can extend the distance travelled by the electric motor alone."

A few weeks later, Bloomberg News - citing unnamed sources - reported that General Motors was developing a plug-in hybrid. GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz has more or less backed up that report, writing in his corporate blog last month that the auto giant is studying plug-in hybrids and "will have more to say about those soon."

No doubt, they're also facing pressure from the U.S. government. Because large-scale introduction of plug-in hybrids has the potential to dramatically reduce oil consumption, and therefore U.S. dependence on foreign oil, George W. Bush is all over the idea.

Last week, during a speech in St. Louis, the U.S. president once again preached the virtues of a plug-in hybrid world and emphasized the need for advancements in battery technology. A plug-in hybrid might not help drivers in rural Missouri or Texas, "but it's certainly going to help those who live in cities," said Bush. "Most folks in the cities don't drive more than 40 miles, so you can envision consumer habits beginning to change."

The numbers vary, but in the United States it's estimated that 40 per cent of Americans travel no more than 32 kilometres on an average day, and 60 per cent travel no more than 48 kilometres. Assuming Canadian statistics are in the same ballpark, it's fair to say that plug-in hybrids could easily suit the needs of millions of Canadians. The market is there.

Telling, however, is that Bush wannabe Stephen Harper hasn't said a word about the technology, despite vague talk of imposing mandatory emission targets on automakers and cracking down on smog.

Neither has Premier Dalton McGuinty, who, despite vowing to close all coal plants in the province to protect the health of Ontarians, goes apoplectic with any mention of imposing emission standards "at the expense of the auto sector" - apparently ignorant of the fact that mandatory emission standards present an opportunity for Ontario.

CALL-OUT: It would be nice if we could build them. That's why we need to take it seriously

Fact is, if it were not for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards imposed in the United States in 1975, North American automakers would have been completely blindsided by the Japanese.

"The CAFE standards in the United States saved Detroit from utter destruction," says energy-efficiency guru Amory Lovins, chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute. "I think this illustrates a boat that Ontario may be missing by resisting the kinds of market and regulatory forces that would drive you to make efficient cars."

The good news? It's been slow to come, but interest in and acceptance of the plug-in hybrid concept is beginning to take hold in Canada. No, Toronto Hydro and Hydro One aren't yet promoting the idea through customer bill inserts, but some utilities are exploring it.

Earlier this month, for example, I wrote a story about the CEO of electricity distribution company Veridian Corp., who has retrofitted his own Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid as part of a joint technology study with St. Lawrence College in Kingston. Transport Canada is apparently interested in taking part in the study.

B.C. Hydro, Manitoba Hydro and Hydro Québec are also keen on plug-ins. All three utilities took part in a National Research Council workshop on the technology in July. Hydro One was noticeably absent. The workshop was organized to spark discussion and to help Natural Resources Canada formulate an R&D funding plan for plug-in hybrids, through its Program for Energy Research and Development.

Closer to home, the City of Toronto is getting ready to launch a 10-car pilot study of plug-in hybrid fleet vehicles.

One obvious concern raised is whether mass adoption of plug-in hybrids would cripple our already fragile electricity grid. Another issue that has been raised is that the electricity used to charge plug-in hybrids will often come from coal-, gas- or oil-fired power plants, so emissions will merely be shifted from vehicle tailpipes to industrial smokestacks.

Addressing the question of what Canada's regional grids can handle is a tough one, since there don't appear to be any comprehensive studies on the matter - at least not ones that are publicly accessible.

Alec Tsang, an engineer at BC Hydro, said the utility has done some rough numbers and has no major concerns about overloading its provincial grid. This is based on the aggressive assumption that 5 per cent of vehicles sold each year over five years are plug-in hybrids, rising to 10 per cent annually in the years that follow.

Hydro Québec, meanwhile, is more focused on all-electric vehicles, which would have larger batteries and consume much more energy than a plug-in hybrid. One of its spin-offs, TM4, designs electric motors and is working with French-based conglomerate Dassault on the production of all-electric cars. About 30 of them are currently being tested in France and similar trials will soon be underway in Quebec.

"An electric vehicle such as one powered by Hydro Québec requires 20 kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometres, which brings us up to 3,200 kilowatt-hours per year, equivalent to the annual consumption of a water heater," says spokesperson Flavie Côté.

She says that works out to $218 a year in energy costs to drive such a vehicle, compared to $1,600 for a gas-powered car. If all four million cars in Quebec were electric, they would consume the equivalent of adding 776,000 homes to the grid.

In the case of B.C. and Quebec, handling the added demand from millions of electric cars could only be achieved by restricting charging to off-peak, over-night hours. This could be a condition of vehicle registration, which would allow the utility to accurately track the overnight electricity load as it grows.

Most car owners would likely charge overnight anyway if tiered pricing, enabled by the introduction of smart meters, results in lower electricity rates between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

It should be noted that the lion's share of electricity production in both provinces comes from hydroelectric resources, so any surplus overnight capacity could go toward charging plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles. It would also be mostly renewable power, so the whole emission-shifting concern wouldn't apply.

CALL-OUT: `The (1975 fuel economy) standards in the United States saved Detroit from utter destruction . . . . I think this illustrates a boat that Ontario may be missing by resisting the kinds of market and regulatory forces that would drive you to make efficient cars' Amory Lovins, chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute

In Ontario, data is hard to come by. What we do know is that there's not much overnight surplus electricity to spare, at least in the wintertime when huge space-heating demands are placed on the system.

But Don Tench, director of planning and assessments at the Independent Electricity System Operator, says there's a lot of surplus capacity - meaning if we needed more overnight power we could easily provide 3,000 to 4,000 megawatts.

"That would charge a lot of cars," he says. We're talking millions of plug-in hybrids.

There's a catch, however. "If you increase that demand off-peak then you're pretty much running things that aren't baseload power, meaning coal or gas," he adds.

"If you don't mind burning coal to supply this off-peak, there's really no limitation to how much you could put on the system."

This raises many questions. What's worse, a handful of coal plants or the tailpipe emissions of several million gas-powered cars? Is embracing plug-in hybrids even an option in Ontario, which has committed to shutting down all its coal plants and plans to partly compensate through an aggressive conservation campaign?

Do we embrace construction of emission-free nuclear power plants as a way to wean ourselves off of oil and move toward electric-powered transportation, or could we fill the necessary power gap through renewables and other distributed energy options, such as combined heat and power plants based on natural and waste gases?

In the United States, groups such as Plug-In Partners, California Cars Initiative and the Electric Power Research Institute have conducted studies in an attempt to answer these questions.

A similar effort needs to be done in Canada, broken down province by province.

This would be an ideal first step for the National Research Council and the Canadian Electricity Association, in co-operation with some of the municipal and utility demonstration projects that are beginning to emerge.

A mass-marketable plug-in hybrid won't arrive overnight, but if these low-emission vehicles do hit the market a few years from now it would be nice to know that we're ready to accept them. Heck, it would be nice if we could build them. That's why we need to take it seriously now.

Clean Break reports on energy issues, every second Monday. Reach Tyler Hamilton at thamilt@...

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