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Ethanol Replaces Hydrogen in PHEV Faceoffs
Dec 12, 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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How often have you seen surveys of "alternative fuels" that talk only about the revolution in biofuels and the hydrogen dream? Two recent reports show the impact of PHEVs -- advocates of other solutions see how much attention electricity is getting and are starting to push back.

2 'green' technologies race for driver's seat
Fuel cells and plug-ins vie for funding and favor that could decide what's on the road.
By Ken Bensinger
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 8, 2007­business/­la-fi-garage8dec08,1,5837240.story?coll=la-headlines-business
A provocative story, worth reading, though the author makes somewhat arbitrary choices in which contentions from hydrogen and electricity advocates he chooses to analyze or solicit responses to. It continues a long-term theme we often encounter, where the reporter, unable to evaluate assertions and counterclaims, seeks safety among those who proclaim they are "above the fray," ecumenically "not picking winners" but backing every horse.­articles/­khosla-calls-plug-in-cars-toys-366.html
Khosla Calls Plug-in Cars 'Toys'
Greentech venture-capital star says meaningful climate-change solutions won't come from plugging vehicles into electric outlets.
by: Rachel Barron, Greentech media, December 6, 2007
Long-time VC Vinod Khosla, heavily invested in conventional and cellulosic ethanol companies, dismisses PHEVs and EVs. I was going to post a comment, including the questions, "which would you rather transport and store: electrons or molecules?" and "will batteries or engines get much better sooner?" but I saw that the blog commentators had already done a very good job responding.

At the same time, these stories raise important issues and have been the spark for our related broad comments:

At this point, looking at the reality of the auto industry, the 15-year love affair with the IDEA of hydrogen fuel cells for cars appears to be winding down. Just in time, alas, new mirages appear and to enable the continuing evasion disguised by platitudes like "let a hundred flowers bloom," and "there's no silver bullet."

Of course, diverse solutions are THEORETICALLY available. Saying so enables advocates of a multitude of liquid fuels, most notably especially corn ethanol, to try to extend for many more years the benefits they get from today's unequivocally non-level playing field of resources, incentives and mind-share. Advocates of the status quo hold most of the cards because favored treatment for liquid fuels and internal combustion engines is deeply embedded throughout the global economy. Thus those who insist the government "not pick winners" thereby continue as the de facto winners.

Three examples:

  • In the still-barely pending Energy Bill, we may be grateful that plug-in cars are starting to get some attention -- but the bulk of resources go to liquid fuels, including production goals of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol (a loser as a fuel from the perspectives, among others, of energy balance, food vs. fuel and water-use) and 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol (if and when it's available, along with a new delivery infrastructure).
  • We have to ask, what rational society would EVER consider funding even research into coal-to-liquid technologies, when using coal-powered plants even to fuel plug-in cars would result in far less CO2 emissions?
  • How can anyone bet the globe's future on the possibility that we might in time be able to capture and sequester CO2 in ways that are secure, available in geologic formations near power plants worldwide, and cheaper than spending money now to reduce the cost of renewable fuels?

If we apply a highly practical standard, such as "what's achievable during the four-to-eight years of the next President's administration," plug-in cars will come out ahead of EVERY liquid-fuel solution available. They require no new infrastructure and no new technology -- though we'd have to build lots more motors and extension cords and vastly ramp up battery production. A fraction of the incentives proposed for liquid fuels, applied directly to incentives to buyers and sellers for volume production and to a federal battery guarantee program (as proposed by several Presidential candidates and by Brookings' David Sandalow in "Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States' Oil Addiction" -- available at­books.html ) would significantly improve battery economics. And continued near-term research and pre-commercialization activities would bring better batteries to market while the carmakers are increasing production of PHEVs as primary family vehicles and EVs as second family cars.

If we commit to a goal of "more electricity in cars," it's also possible to convert hundreds of thousands of Prius and other hybrids and even to retrofit tens of millions of today's cars and trucks to power the second axle electrically.

At the same time, we can offer some reassurance to those who want to be sure we embrace a "silver buckshot" approach that doesn't preclude any promising solution. Once we power commuting miles electrically, there's definitely a place for low-carbon biofuels that have no unintended negative impacts and don't consume vast resources. A multiple-fuel approach is embedded in two ways within the electrification of transportation: first, all plug-ins are powered by a grid that can accept almost any energy source (and could even run someday on biofuels), and second, PHEVs' range extension fuel can evolve to be any liquid fuel.

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