Jan 29, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Here are some of the top news stories of the past week. The San Diego Tribune story includes our comments after the State of the Union address. The NY Times story diplomatically compares the efficiency of hydrogen in a fuel cell to electricity in a battery, and cites a wonderful new "problem" with PHEVs/EVs: "In city and highway traffic, the car, like most electrics, has no vibration, and the tire sounds are prominent because there is no engine noise to mask them." The Christian Science Monitor story compares the new DRIVE bill with the President's approach, and talks about its prospects.
Hopes high for plug-in hybrids
Calls to cut use of gas spark new interest in electric cars
By Mark Sauer, Staff Writer
San Diego Union Tribune
January 28, 2007
Electric-car owners such as J.F. Lancelot of San Diego were devastated when auto companies pulled the plug on their battery-powered runabouts a few years ago.
Lancelot drives a Mini Cooper now. "I just waste a lot of gas, like everybody else," he said.
But Lancelot and many other Americans are taking heart from a surge of interest in plug-in hybrid cars, which began with national media exposure last year and got a boost last week from President Bush in his State of the Union address.
Bush set a goal of reducing gasoline use in the United States by 20 percent over the next 10 years. In addition to expanding the use of alternative fuels such as ethanol, wind and solar power, the president said, "We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles."
Bush followed that the next day with an executive order mandating that all federal agencies with more than 20 vehicles use "PHEVs" - plug-in hybrid electric vehicles - when they become commercially available.
For the long-suffering choir of PHEV advocates, Bush's sermonizing caused a burst of excitement.
"The president is increasing awareness for PHEVs, and that is really important," said Felix Kramer. He founded the California Cars Initiative, a Palo Alto-based group that advocates the immediate production of PHEVs.
"Our Web site traffic went way up after Bush's speech," Kramer said. "People want to get educated about this."
Conventional hybrids, such as the Ford Escape and Toyota Prius, are gasoline-powered cars made very efficient by employing an electric motor to start, idle and drive at low speeds, and whose batteries recapture power when the the vehicles go downhill or brake.
Plug-in hybrids, which aren't yet available commercially, are electric cars with large batteries backed up by small, efficient, gasoline engines should the batteries run down.
Plug-in prototypes typically go 20 to 30 miles on battery power alone, with zero emissions. It's estimated that a typical PHEV sedan would get 100 miles or more per gallon of gas, on average, when longer trips are factored in.
The cost of powering a PHEV is 2 to 4 cents a mile, compared with 8 to 20 cents per mile - depending on fuel efficiency - for a conventional gasoline-powered car when gas is $3 per gallon, Kramer said.
A driver could plug his or her PHEV into a standard outlet and charge its batteries overnight, when electricity from the grid is plentiful and cheaper than during peak daytime hours, Kramer added.
He said that since the average American commutes less than 30 miles per day, many PHEV owners would rarely have to use gas, except to go on trips.
Unlike ethanol and other alternative fuels, which require massive infrastructure investment, "car manufacturers can do this anytime they choose," Kramer said.
James Burns, a professor of mechanical engineering at San Diego State University, has been researching PHEVs for 10 years and has built three prototypes.
"They work very well driving around town," Burns said of PHEVs. Current hybrid cars can be converted to plug-ins now, he noted, with kits that cost about $10,000 available from various manufacturers.
Burns said he was among several researchers and small companies offering demonstration vehicles to the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles. He urges companies and utilities, such as San Diego Gas & Electric Co., to invite similar fleet demonstrations that could ignite public interest.
"This (PHEV) system is not much more complicated than today's hybrids; they just use bigger batteries," Burns said. "It's the next step in the transition from the internal-combustion engine to fully electric vehicles."
One downside is that the rechargeable batteries, which cost thousands of dollars, generally need to be replaced every few years. Some aren't recyclable.
Despite a strong push from the farm lobby, corn-based ethanol is energy-and water-intensive to produce, and requires investments in distribution infrastructure, Burns and other experts say.
The idea of powering cars with domestically produced electricity instead of oil - 60 percent of which is imported - has drawn advocates across the political spectrum.
Environmentalists are enthused because it's easier to control carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming, at a relatively small number of power plants than in 240 million gas-powered vehicles.
Autoworkers and automakers are excited about the prospect of new products and markets. Utilities welcome the potential to sell off-peak, underutilized power at night.
And nearly everyone embraces the idea of ending America's dependence on foreign oil.
Critics have said that power plants in many areas of the country, notably those burning coal to produce electricity, don't have California's strict controls and are highly polluting.
But the nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute, which promotes renewable fuels and strategies for a sustainable environment, found an average reduction of 60 percent in carbon emissions per vehicle when a PHEV replaces a conventional car.
Some critics worry that a major shift from gasoline to electricity for powering cars would overtax the grid. To avoid potential brownouts, a major infrastructure investment would be needed, they say.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates there would be no need to increase electrical-generation capacity until plug-ins constitute nearly 85 percent of the nation's vehicles. That's because most charging can take place during off-peak hours.
Before Bush's encouragement last week, PHEVs got a boost in October when Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm joined executives from General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and the BMW Group in launching the Hybrid Development Center in suburban Detroit.
In addition, GM introduced the plug-in prototype Chevrolet Volt at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month, and other automakers are presenting similar concept cars.
Yet proponents of PHEVs say consumer preferences, oil-company interests, bureaucratic barriers and other obstacles exist in the absence of dramatic market forces such as skyrocketing gas prices or a terrorist threat to oil supplies.
"The spike to $3-plus gas last summer sparked a lot of interest," Kramer said. "But we missed a bet after the attacks of 9/11 by not switching to plug-in hybrids at the time when the country was ready for sacrifice and change.
"I'd be very happy if we could see (PHEVs) available commercially by the end of the decade."
Library researchers Peter Uribe and Beth Wood contributed to this report. Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227; mark.sauer@...
The New York Times
January 23, 2007
Ford Shows a Hybrid Car With 2 Modes: Electric or Electric
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 - Move over, gas-electric hybrid. Ford has a new entry, the electric-electric hybrid.
The vehicle, based on a Ford Edge crossover, runs on electricity from a battery, charged either from a standard wall socket or from an on-board fuel cell. It has two highly visible fueling ports, both on the driver's side of the vehicle. One is a hose coupling for hydrogen gas, and the other is an electric connection like the one on a leaf blower, ready for a standard three-prong extension cord.
"I told the design team to make them prominent," said Mujeeb I. Ijaz, the manager of fuel-cell vehicle engineering at Ford.
Energy specialists say they think the plug-in hybrid could cut oil dependence by allowing a car to go the first 25 or 30 miles each day on energy drawn from the power grid, most of which is generated from coal. That would cover the entire commute of most drivers on most days.
But almost all plug-in hybrid designs have a gasoline engine as a backup, to provide range. The plug-in Edge is the first to use a fuel cell instead, according to Ford.
Marrying a fuel cell to a battery allows the fuel cell to run at a constant rate, which is gentler on the hardware than having it cycle up to its maximum when the car is accelerating and then down to nothing. And it means that the fuel cell can be much smaller, because it does not need to be sized to handle maximum load.
The plug-in hybrid Edge has a 35-kilowatt fuel cell and a 130-kilowatt electric motor drive.
Mr. Ijaz said that fuel cells were less expensive than they used to be, but were still near $1,000 for a kilowatt of capacity, about 10 times the price of a kilowatt from a battery, and 30 times the price of a kilowatt from a gasoline engine.
The finished product (of which there is exactly one) illustrates the economics of hydrogen. At $5 a kilo of hydrogen (which is the selling price at a demonstration fueling station here, but probably far below actual cost), a dollar's worth will push the Edge about eight miles. But a consumer who charged the batteries at 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, roughly the national average retail price, would go 25 miles on a dollar's worth.
(A gasoline vehicle that gets 20 miles a gallon on unleaded regular at $2.25 a gallon would go a little less than 9 miles on a dollar's worth.)
The Edge was built as an experiment, not as a money-saver. Partly financed by the Energy Department, it cost about $2 million. The assistant secretary of energy for conservation and renewables, Andrew Karsner, is scheduled to appear at the Washington Auto Show on Tuesday to discuss the Edge and other vehicles.
Among its disadvantages is a hydrogen tank that takes up about seven times as much space as a gasoline tank that would provide the same useable energy.
The Edge has switches that allow the driver to plan a trip and do the last few miles on battery, with the fuel cell shut down, to maximize use of electricity from the grid, not from hydrogen. The tailpipe emits only low-temperature water vapor. On Sunday afternoon, at 32 degrees, as Ford raced to get photos of the vehicle before the snow started, Mr. Ijaz aptly described the tailpipe as looking like a dryer vent. In warmer weather the vapor would not be so visible.
Running in cold weather has another complication; the Edge uses electric resistance heat, supplemented by waste heat from the fuel-cell stack. The air-conditioner is also electric. Both cut slightly into range. With fuel compressed to 5,000 pounds per square inch, range is 200 miles (plus 25 miles on electricity stored from the initial battery charge); Ford, like the rest of the fuel-cell industry, plans to shift to fuel cells that use hydrogen stored at 10,000 p.s.i.
In city and highway traffic, the car, like most electrics, has no vibration, and the tire sounds are prominent because there is no engine noise to mask them. The sound of a compressor that pumps air through the fuel cell is also prominent.
Sci/Tech > Environment
from the January 26, 2007 edition
Gas substitutes boost the flex-fuel car
Soon, alternative fuels might be made from corn,
soybeans, and plant fiber - and new cars would be able to run on them.
By Mark Clayton | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Prospects are brightening for a big change at your local service station.
Instead of just regular, plus, and premium, gas stations in a few years may well be offering fuel made from corn, soybeans, and plant fiber. And new cars would be engineered to run on them.
Following President Bush's call Tuesday for a 20 percent cut in gasoline consumption, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have unveiled legislation that would require automakers to build "flex-fuel" cars that could burn the various alternative fuels.
The new legislation, which still must work its way through Congress, has some powerful backers. Energy-security advocates like its emphasis on reducing reliance on foreign oil. Farm-state Democrats and Republicans like its boost of corn-based ethanol. Even the Big Three automakers like the move to flex-fuel technology because it might give them an advantage over foreign automakers building hybrid cars.
"This plan now waiting in Congress dovetails nicely with the president's statements, helping achieve his goals and doing even more," says Anne Korin, chairwoman of Set America Free, an energy-security coalition based in Washington, D.C. "The amazing thing is that I believe there's actually a pretty good chance it will pass both houses and get to the president's desk."
The push for alternative fuels is coming from several forces. Last November, the chief executives of the Big Three automakers met with Mr. Bush in a White House chat to talk about the challenges facing their industry. One idea that surfaced: by 2012, half of all their new vehicles could be flex-fuel models.
These cars and trucks could burn a range of alternatives to gasoline - from ethanol made from corn to methanol made from coal. That kind of push could help meet Bush's goal of reducing US gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years.
After the president announced that goal at Tuesday's State of the Union address, Ford announced its support for the effort in a statement, pointing out it had already produced 2 million flex-fuel vehicles.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents foreign as well as domestic automakers, is taking a more nuanced stand.
"Energy security is important to the alliance, and we've already put more than 9 million alternative-fuel automobiles on the road, including hybrid, diesel, and ethanol-capable vehicles," says spokesman Wade Newton.
The bipartisan legislation in Congress has some of the same aims as the president. It aims to slash US dependence on oil by 2.5 million barrels a day by 2017 - a 10 percent reduction on expected consumption. That cut is roughly equivalent to the White House goal of 20 percent in gasoline consumption (which represents about half of US oil use).
But the bill provides an explicit road map for achieving a reduction of 7 million barrels a day by 2026. It, for example:
• Provides big tax incentives for motorists to purchase plug-in hybrid vehicles. Because these hybrids rely far more on electric power (and less on gasoline) than today's hybrids, they would qualify for bigger tax breaks than today's models do.
• Ramps up oil displacement with biofuels by, among other things, offering tax breaks to gas stations that offer ethanol and other fuels.
• Establishes a detailed oil-conservation program, which would include "oil savings" audits of federal agencies.
• Boosts research on ethanol made from plant fiber and other noncorn materials by $1 billion over five years.
• Offers tax credits, loan guarantees, and grants to automakers and suppliers that retool factories to build more efficient vehicles.
Congress, of course, is awash in energy bills that go nowhere. In fact, earlier versions of the current legislation enjoyed good bipartisan support in the last Congress. But they stumbled because they became ensnared in issues such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling - and drilling off the Florida coast. With Democrats now in charge of Congress, both issues seem off the table, giving the bill room to get going, observers say.
The biggest question marks are in the House of Representatives where the bill's success may depend on garnering support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - as well as the level of opposition from Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, whose committee is known for blocking bills Detroit automakers don't like.
But especially if some modest White House support for the bill can be generated, the bill will make it through that committee, supporters say. There are already 60 cosponsors from both parties with the prospects for another 100 or so, observers say.
"I've talked with the president about this bill before, and I know he supports its goals," says Rep. Jack Kingston (R) of Georgia, the bill's cosponsor along with Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York. "If the president is looking for a legacy, shifting the nation away from oil to alternative fuels, it's sitting there waiting for him."
In the Senate, prospects appear even stronger. The bill got critical support in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee where committee chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico is a cosponsor. Other key Democratic cosponsors include Sens. Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Barack Obama.
One key stumbling block from the old version of the House bill has been excised: a provision to get rid of the current tariff that makes it more expensive to import ethanol. Even though energy hawks wanted it badly, the provision was a deal breaker because ethanol manufacturers - especially those in the critical state of Iowa where presidential aspirants must campaign first - don't want it.
That move has generated some criticism. "This legislation recognizes the dire geopolitical threat to us from imported oil," says Ariel Cohen, an energy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "What I find amiss is that it does not address the need to bring into the US the most competitive ethanol, sugar-cane ethanol [from Brazil and Caribbean nations], which is now penalized with punitive tariffs."