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Scientific American Talks to DOE Study Authors; Magazine Lists PHEVs in Top 50 Tech Leaders
Dec 13, 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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The US Department of Energy report continues to get waves of attention -- not only in news stories, but in uncountable numbers of blogs. We ran the Pacific NW National Lab's press release­calcars-news/­605.html; the actual report won't be out for some weeks. Meanwhile, Scientific American managed to interview two of the report's authors. (A version of the story that follows may appear in the print magazine in the coming months as well.)

SciAm seems to be recognizing PHEVs' high potential as a response to climate crisis. In April, the magazine ran a very high-visibility article on PHEVs by Andy Frank and Joe Romm <http:/>. It has since featured PHEVs in articles by Daniel Kammen and others (see­news-archive.html). Last month, the magazine included two aftermarket PHEV conversion companies in its list of Scientific American 50 Technology Leaders. We include that writeup below.

NEWS: December 13, 2006
Spare Power Sufficient to Fuel Switch from Gas to Electric Cars
Existing U.S. power plants could provide enough juice to switch 84
percent of the 220 million American vehicles on the road from
gasoline to electricity.­article.cfm?articleid=7DAAAE1A-E7F2-99DF-3C7E9BECAAA68E5F

CAPTION: PLUG-IN POWER: Plug-in hybrids, which rely more heavily on electric power than conventional hybrids, could easily be fueled by the existing U.S. power infrastructure, paving the way for lower emissions and weaning Americans from oil. Image: COURTESY OF CALCARS.ORG

Rumors of the electric car's demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated, with so-called plug-in hybrids making the rounds from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., along with the sporty, new all-electric Tesla Roadster on offer. Now a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) offers more good news: existing electric power plants could fuel 84 percent of "light duty" vehicles if all 220 million cars and trucks converted to electric power overnight. "We're delighted to see solid third-party confirmation of what the people who know best--the utilities--have been saying for sometime," says Felix Kramer, plug-in hybrid owner/evangelist and founder of

The analysis noted that the capacity of the U.S. power infrastructure is underutilized. Every evening--and during days of low demand--there is a large amount of spare capacity that could easily be tapped. By charging cars and trucks with electricity at night, American drivers could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil while potentially cutting power prices as well. "Since gasoline consumption accounts for 73 percent of imported oil, it is intriguing to think of the trade and national security benefits if our vehicles switched from oil to electrons," notes PNNL energy researcher Rob Pratt. "Plus, since the utilities would be selling more electricity without having to build more plants or power lines, electricity prices could go down for everyone."

The researchers specifically excluded power resources such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar as each of these already produce electricity at maximum capacity. Yet, plugging in our cars could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 18 percent. "Coal plants and gas plants are the marginal units that we considered for charging the plug-in hybrid batteries," says PNNL staff scientist Michael Kintner-Meyer, lead author of the forthcoming report. "Wherever you have a high dominance of natural gas, that is where you improve on the total greenhouse gas emissions."

Such a switch would have other pollution benefits as well, including radically reducing the amount of asthma-inducing particulate matter in the air of urban areas. Basically, the source of pollution is transferred: "It is far less expensive to capture emissions at the smokestack than the tailpipe," Pratt adds. And the report estimates that purchasing a plug-in hybrid--a premium of as much as $10,000--would pay for itself within five to eight years, depending on regional electricity prices.

"Nobody ever asks what's the payback on a sunroof," Calcar's Kramer notes. "People are buying the environmental feature, just like people buy leather seats or sunroofs." But consumers are not likely to get that option on a large scale in the immediate future. "They're still not being made and there's no immediate prospect of them being made," he adds. "Batteries are good enough now to put in cars and they're going to be even better by the time we're in production." Already, initial vehicles--and their outdated nickel batteries--have proven durable beyond 100,000 miles.

Kintner-Meyer predicts a total changeover could take as long as 25 years. In the meantime, technological improvements in things like batteries will likely make the case for such a transition even more persuasive. But the improvements are not only needed on the automotive side; such a switch would probably require smart chargers that would sense the appropriate times to refill the car's electric tank. And the grid would need improvement, too: "Some of the equipment is designed to cool down at night. If you are basically running at maximum capacity for the entire infrastructure, then you are burning the system," Kintner-Meyer says. "There needs to be some smartness in the charger of those plug-in hybrids that will sense emergencies in the grid and briefly interrupt the charging." Not to mention some smartness in deciding to go back to the future (electric cars outsold competitors at the turn of the last century) in short order. --David Biello

Scientific American 50: Trends in Research, Business and Policy­article.cfm?articleID=CA663E2C-E7F2-99DF-3B212D4B44CF6D05 and this entry:­article.cfm?articleID=CA41CF93-E7F2-99DF-332D036FA997032C&pageNumber=2&catID=9 November 12, 2006

Yet an additional way to raise the environmental performance of hybrid vehicles is to give them the means to store power from the electrical grid so that at times they can run on electricity alone instead of drawing power from a generator driven by a gasoline-burning, internal combustion engine. These plug-in hybrids came closer to commercial reality when two companies, EDrive Systems, a joint venture of EnergyCS and Clean-Tech in Calif., and Hymotion, a Canadian company, each introduced plug-in hybrid upgrade kits for the Toyota Prius. EDrive's system, a larger replacement for the hybrid car's lithium-ion battery system will cost from $10,000 to $12,000. The Hymotion add-ons are supplementary lithium-ion battery systems for fleets. Orders orders greater than 100 vehicles will cost $9,500 each. The new battery packs do not change the basic operation of the Prius; all-electric power is limited to low speeds. Either unit can be recharged by connecting it to a standard household electrical outlet. In the wake of these developments, the road to a greener, more sustainable energy future seems to be opening up--Steven Ashley

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