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Environmental Defense Fund's First Take on PHEVs
Jul 31, 2007 (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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While it's often not true that "no news is good news;" it may be true that "any publicity is good publicity." Under that principle, we're glad to see that the large national environmental group Environmental Defense has for the first time addressed the potential of and the challenges of PHEVs. (We've been big fans of ED's very moving and effective tv/radio public service ads on global warming­.)

On transportation, ED has long said "we don't pick winners" and "technology is not the answer" to oil dependency. But recently ED started a new blog, Climate 411, and after writing very hopefully (yet with no discussion of economics or thermodynamics) about "air cars," the blog is turning a critical eye to PHEVs. We welcome ED to the discussion and hope it will go further -- and we're looking forward to seeing if ED applies the same analytic criteria to hydrogen and ethanol in parts two and three, as Co-op America did so well recently in its survey of "Fuels for the Future"­calcars-news/­799.html. Here's the original post and our response. (We didn't try to address every point; others can join in!)

Climate 411 Blogging the science and policy of global warming Plug-in Cars: The Lowdown July 30, 2007­climate411/­2007/­07/­30/­plug-in_cars/­ The author of today's post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editor Manager at Environmental Defense.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Vehicle Fuels and Technology.
1. Plug-in Cars: The Lowdown
2. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles
3. Guide to Alternative Fuels

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, or PHEVs, have been in the news a lot lately. It's an appealing idea - virtually no emissions, just plug in your car at night and go. Plus the batteries that drive them could store electricity for homes and offices. When cars are parked and plugged in, the electric utility could draw on stored battery power during times of peak demand (with compensation to the car owner).

But will plug-in cars really be ready for widespread use by 2010?

Reading the news, you might think that PHEVs are just around the corner. Toyota just displayed a plug-in version of its Prius. A recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says that if plug-in cars are in widespread use from 2010 to 2050, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be dramatic.

Certainly people are trying to make it happen, spurred by inventor/advocates such as Felix Kramer of and others. The Austin City Council has launched a $1 million campaign to promote plug-ins. Google's philanthropic arm is donating $10 million towards the development of the technology. General Motors made a splash with its Chevy Volt concept in January. Ford has joined the party with a plug-in prototype of its Edge SUV.

But as our automotive expert John DeCicco points out, there are some daunting technical issues. In a briefing [PDF] before the U.S. Senate, Advanced Automotive Batteries president Menahem Anderman estimated that plug-ins won't be generally available for another 10 years. Honda manager John German, also in Senate testimony [PDF], said that the problems with plug-ins were so difficult that Honda wasn't even going to try.

So what's going on? Are plug-ins around the corner, 10 years away, or not realistic at all?

The bugaboo is the battery. Here's a summary of the problems, based on Anderman's analysis:

1. The plug-in battery will be about 3 to 5 times the size of today's non-plug-in hybrid batteries, essentially filling the cargo space of an average sedan. 2. The weight of this battery will add 200 to 300 lbs. to that of the car, putting a drag on performance and efficiency. 3. The lithium batteries needed to provide adequate performance for plug-ins raise a serious concern about hazardous failure, such as a fire in a home garage, because they need much deeper, full charging than the smaller batteries of today's hybrids, which are always kept at an intermediate state of charge. 4. The cost of this plug-in battery (at pack level) to carmakers, using present technology, will be 3 to 5 times the average cost of today's hybrid batteries, i.e. around $5,000 to $7,000 per pack. 5. The life of any battery technology, lithium or otherwise, when used in a plug-in car is not known. There's a good chance that battery life will be short, meaning costly replacements over the life of a vehicle.

John German points to market problems, as well. He says that unless battery prices drop considerably, the vehicles will be too expensive for broad acceptance. So Honda has instead chosen to focus on hydrogen fuel cell technology (the subject of Part 2 in this series).

German closes his statement with some good advice about how the government can help:

It is impossible to predict the pace of technology development and when breakthroughs will or will not occur. Accordingly, technology-specific mandates cannot get us where we need to go. In fact, previous attempts to mandate specific technologies have a poor track record, such as the attempts in the 1990s to promote methanol and the California electric vehicle mandate. The primary effect of technology-specific mandates is to divert precious resources from other development programs that likely are more promising. If there are to be mandates, they should be stated in terms of performance requirements, with incentives and supported by research and development.

So will plug-in hybrids eventually become mainstream? Possibly, but only with sufficient investment in the development of battery technology. Since we can't know for sure which technologies will work out, it's best to push ahead on all fronts - including making better use of the technologies already at hand - and not put all our eggs in the plug-in basket.

One Response
Comment from felixkramer
July 30th, 2007 at 4:28 pm

Thanks for opening up a discussion about PHEVs on ED's website! Of course, the starting point has to be to use what's already at hand. That includes energy conservation, both by reducing miles traveled and increasing the MPG of current engines.

But it also includes taking advantage of existing solutions using today's technology and needing no new infrastructure. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles bring the benefit of not simply reducing gasoline use, but of DISPLACING oil with electricity that comes from increasingly renewable sources. Now that the EPRI-NRDC study has demonstrated across-the-board greenhouse gas benefits from switching to electricity under many scenarios, and now that the Pacific National Lab has proven we have enough off-peak power, the huge benefits of PHEVs run by cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity become apparent. We can even start to get a glimpse of the potential of "vehicle-to-grid" solutions to turn intermittent renewable energy sources into reliable 24/7 sources for instance, by storing night-time wind-power in car batteries.

Some battery experts tend to play catch-up with technologies a few years ago they said PHEVs would never happen. Now they're saying 5-10 years. Soon carmakers may be ahead of them! Testimony at the California Air Resource Board's Zero Emission Vehicle Symposium a few months ago led the ARB to conclude that PHEVs are the most promising immediate solution.

Toyota's RAV4EV shows nickel-metal hydride batteries can last over 100,000 miles. Tesla Motors shows lithium-ion batteries can survive crash tests. Many batteries under development have phosphate and other additives that vastly improve safety. I drive a 30-mile range conversion with lithium batteries that fit entirely under the deck of my Prius, not reducing everyday storage, and add only 150 pounds to the car. My Valence batteries have already lasted 30,000 miles and have a long way to go. Many batterymakers working with automakers and national labs (A123Systems/Cobasys, Compact Power/LG Chem, Johnson Controls/Saft, Altairnanosystems and others) expect their batteries will last the lifetime of the car. (Then instead of recycling, utilities now say they'll buy batteries that are at say 80% strength to use for stationery storage.)

The remaining issue is the cost of batteries. Many people can't wait to pay thousands of dollars more all the time for leather seats or sunroofs, without worrying about "payback." Now analysts estimate millions of car buyers will pay more for the "environmental feature."

At the same time, with electric miles at under $1/gallon, the economics are very favorable. The high first cost is addressed by Google, Bank of America and others showing the way forward by offering $3,000-$5,000 employee benefits for buying standard high-mileage hybrids, by federal and state legislation proposing major incentives to carmakers and carbuyers, and by the potential of vehicle-to-grid payments by utilities to car owners for "renting their batteries" what Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner calls the "Cash-Back Hybrid." Wait until we get to mass production: studies project PHEVs could SELL for $3-$5,000 more than all gasoline hybrids.

The key as far as Environmental Defense goes is the last paragraph. No one knows what technologies will work. PHEVs have just started to get a few million dollars in support, while hydrogen (via the FreedomCar program etc.) has been supported with billions of dollars in R&D funds. Ethanol is another years-away solution requiring a new infrastructure, and its implementation using corn is clearly a disaster. If we put a few PHEV eggs in the basket FOR THE FIRS TIME, we can start powering local miles electrically, and watch what happens among all the contenders for liquid "range extension" fuel. We can work for a level playing field, with a priority to solutions than can help today, not decades in the future.

Felix Kramer, Founder, The California Cars Initiative (

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