PLUG OK license plate
NY Times: Still Miles to Go for the Plug-In Vehicle
Oct 25, 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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We talked for a long time with this reporter, who after decades of valiant skepticism on the nuclear industry and environmental topics, always always asks tough questions. We overcame concerns that electrifying transportation was a net environmental plus, but he remains doubtful about batteries. In the final story, he focuses only on straight payback on fuel costs, ignoring the possibility of improving batteries and of rebates that "monetize" social or environmental benefits or grid connectivity. And he unaccountably adds a $20,000 premium for a PHEV. Still, the article, on page 6 of a 36-page special "Autos" section, expands the conversation.­2006/­10/­25/­automobiles/­autospecial/­25battery.html The Hybrid Question Still Miles to Go for the Plug-In Vehicle By Matthew L. Wald Washington: : Published: October 25, 2006

CHARGED UP Hymotion sells a kit that adds a plug-in battery to the
Toyota Prius.
The Hymotion L5 PHEV conversion module for the Toyota Prius.

THE electric system runs mostly on coal, natural gas and uranium, all relatively plentiful. Cars run mostly on oil, oil and oil, which lately has been expensive. Wouldn't it be nice to connect the two?

Commercially available batteries will not store enough electricity to move a full-size car more than about 60 or 70 miles, enough to meet most drivers' needs on most days but not a very attractive candidate in the auto showroom. So what about a car with enough battery power for its first few dozen miles, and a gasoline engine to handle the rest?

Enter the plug-in hybrid, or rather, the concept of a plug-in hybrid. The idea is to expand on the gasoline-electric hybrids already on the road, which charge the battery from the gasoline engine. With a bigger battery pack, charged from an electric outlet, drivers could go the first few gallons' worth every day on electricity instead, the theory goes.

Comparing total miles driven with the gasoline consumed, advocates say the plug-ins will travel 80 miles or more on a gallon. The rest of the energy will come from coal or natural gas, or, ideally, wind turning a windmill or water spinning a hydroelectric turbine.

"There's now a real and growing recognition that we face a national security crisis in energy dependency," said Frank J. Gaffney Jr., the president and chief executive of the Center for Security Policy, an advocacy group here, who has been campaigning for plug-ins. Mr. Gaffney, who has held various Pentagon jobs in Republican administrations, argued, "It makes eminent sense to make as rapid a transition to those plug-in hybrids as we can."

It also has economic appeal. At $2.50 a gallon, a vehicle that gets 20 miles to the gallon costs 12.5 cents a mile to run. But a car that goes four miles on a kilowatt-hour would cost just over 2 cents a mile to run, at the national average retail electricity price. But the price might be lower than average because electric companies could tap into cheap nighttime generation, getting new use from equipment that is usually idle for half the day.

Yet despite the hopes of policy makers, engineers say there is no prospect of this happening in the near future.

At Toyota, which dominates the hybrid market and builds the Prius, the hybrid that advocates want to convert to plug-in, David Hermance, the executive engineer for environmental engineering, is horrified.

He said he recognized the appeal. Plug-ins, he said, "have been put forward as the silver bullet solution for almost everything."

But, he said, plug-ins are "not yet ready for prime time."

And if Toyota sounds reticent, DaimlerChrysler is downright reluctant, even though it has built four test models, commercial-size vans that run on gasoline and electricity.

One drawback, said Deborah Morrissett, vice president of regulatory affairs, is "you're still hauling around two powertrains," meaning extra weight and complexity.

"It's not high on our list," she said.

But both companies, as well as General Motors, have said that they are looking at the technology.

A crucial problem is that the Prius battery will last well over 100,000 miles, but only because it is babied. It is seldom charged above 60 percent of capacity, or allowed to fall below 40 percent. If it were charged fully and allowed to run down, like a laptop battery, it would, over hundreds of cycles, lose its ability to hold a charge, Toyota says. That suggests a replacement cost in the thousands of dollars.

"It's going to be a real issue from a durability standpoint," Mr. Hermance said.

A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, while praising the plug-in goal, cast severe doubt on its practicality. When gasoline costs $3 a gallon and the driver goes 12,000 miles a year, the report said, a year's fuel is about $1,200 in a conventional car, but a Prius at 50 miles a gallon saves $480 of that. If the hybrid costs an extra $3,500, then the payback period is seven years, the report said.

But if the plug-in goes four miles on a kilowatt-hour, and does its first 40 miles on electricity, the incremental cost would be about $20,000, but the saving is only about $15 a year larger than for the Prius-type vehicle. The car could be registered as an antique before the owner earned back the additional investment.

Ricardo Bazzarella, president of Hymotion, a Toronto company that sells conversion kits, said that gasoline would probably have to hit around $5 to get a four-year payback. So for the moment, his sales are limited to people who are interested in technology, not money.

There is a market for such people. Felix Kramer, the founder of the California Cars Initiative, an advocacy group, pointed out a parallel in the energy world. "People will say it's worth paying a little more to get wind and solar into the marketplace," he said.

And batteries could improve. At the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium in Palo Alto, Calif., Mark S. Duvall, the manager of technology development, said that nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which are big enough for cars and durable enough for years of use, could be built, but that the industry had never done so because there was no demand.

The institute has visions of a "smart grid," in which a plug-in hybrid, or pure electric, can plug in anywhere. The utility system will recognize it, charge it up and bill the owner of the car, not the owner of the outlet. The arrangement would be somewhat like a person with a telephone credit card using any phone at his own expense

Cars for a plug-in hybrid are a different problem than batteries for cars like a Prius. Engineers evaluate batteries on two main characteristics: how much they will store and how fast they will accept or deliver energy. Prius batteries are more like a shot glass, accepting and delivering a small quantity very quickly.

The battery providing the sole source of power for an electric car is shaped more like a decanter, with a large volume delivered and accepted at slower rates per pound of battery.

But batteries that wore out too quickly - or proved capable of occasional fires, like the ones now being recalled from laptop use - would sour the public on the plug-in concept, experts say. It also has to make economic sense.

"The cost-benefit relationship has got to be there," said Mr. Hermance of Toyota. "If you can't sell them, they can't do anybody any good."

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