Give up car-lessness for Rob Lowe's plug-in?
This post is 32 in the series: The Year of Living Car-lessly Experiment

Update:Read the sequel to this post, where Alan reconsiders plug-ins.

The weekend before Halloween, my car-less family got a loaner plug-in hybrid electric car to try. You see, the City of Seattle and some other local public agencies are testing the conversion of some existing hybrids to plug-ins to accelerate the spread of these near-zero-emissions vehicles. As a favor and, perhaps, for some publicity (this post), the city’s program manager offered me four days’ use of the prototype—previously driven by actor Rob Lowe.

Enthusiasm about plug-in hybrids—like their now-almost-mainstream siblings the gas-electric hybrids–has been running high of late. For example, the California Air Resources Board is among the toughest air quality regulators in the world. When the members of board’s expert panel reviewed the evidence on plug-in hybrids, they issued a boosterish report predicting widespread adoption and fast market penetration. The Western Governors’ Association is similarly smitten (MSWord doc). The tone of some popular press reports makes it seem that the vehicular second coming may be at hand.

For this auto (pictured in our back yard, with our Flexcar visible out front), I wondered, would my family give up its car-less ways? Would the joy of these 100+ mpg wheels cause us to end our 21 months of car-free-ness, emulate Rob, and buy our own plug-in?


The short answer? No. Plug-in hybrid-electric cars hold great promise, as long as we can fix the laws. And the technology. Oh, and the price.

None of those fixes are “gimmes.” Without the first—and specifically, without a legal cap on greenhouse gases—plug-ins could actually do more harm than good. And without the second two fixes—working technology and competitive prices—plug-ins won’t spread beyond the Hollywood set. (Echoes of this point are in Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest article in the New Yorker.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

What’s a plug-in hybrid-electric car?

Like any hybrid car, a plug-in is a vehicle with a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine and, also, a battery-powered electric motor. Either the engine or the motor or both can power the wheels. The balance between the two shifts continuously depending on how much power is in the battery and how hard you’re pressing the accelerator. Furthermore, excess energy from the engine—and the wheels, during braking—recharges the battery.

plug-in_and_Peter_150w What’s different about a plug-in is that it’s got a larger battery than a regular hybrid—much larger. In the Prius we drove (converted to plug-in by the lithium-ion battery wizards at A123 Systems of Watertown, Massachusetts), the battery fills the space under the trunk where the spare tire should be. (Who needs a spare anyway?) Also, as the name suggests, a plug-in has an electric socket, so you can charge the battery by patching the car into the electric grid at home or work. (That’s what my son Peter is doing in this photo.) Thanks to these additions, plug-in hybrids are more electric- than gas-powered. Think of them as battery vehicles with back-up gasoline engines. As the placards on Rob Lowe’s trial model declared, a plug-in can easily go more than 100 miles per gallon. (Of course, that’s a one-eyed claim, since plug-ins operate more on kilowatt-hours than gallons.)

How did it drive?

Fine, thanks. Driving a plug-in hybrid is like driving any other car. There’s not much to say. You push the accelerator and it goes. What’s different? It’s really quiet, even quieter than a regular Prius.

In fact, the main differences my kids noticed were the luxury car features, not the battery-electric ones. Unacquainted with Hollywood-sized bank accounts, they’ve rarely set their car-less feet inside an auto so new and loaded with features. They liked the leather interior and, especially, the computer monitor that centers the dashboard. It displays real-time navigation instructions, maps your location, and utters directions—with perfect diction, in a woman’s voice. (Whose voice is that? I want to know.) When you shift into reverse, the monitor converts to a closed-circuit TV screen and shows what’s behind you. My son Peter and his friend took turns standing behind the parked car and watching the screen. Again, none of this has anything to do with being a plug-in. It has to do with being Rob Lowe’s. Apparently, you can get such features on most new cars. (Being car-less, I had no idea!)

As for me, I enjoyed the gauges and graphics that indicate what power source I was running and what my fuel economy was. Or, I should say, I enjoyed the gauges and graphics for the first 48 hours. For the remaining 48 hours, the dashboard beeped incessant warnings. “Problem” flashed relentlessly on the computer screen. The only way I could stop the alerts was to turn off the bonus battery kit. Just before our use of the car ended, a technician from A123 returned my call and explained how to reboot the control system to “clear the error.” (One problem with a car that’s half computer is, well, it’s half computer.)

No doubt, plug-in makers will iron out such problems before the vehicles hit the market. Road testing is one purpose of Seattle’s pilot project. And no one anticipates mass-market plug-ins for a few years, in any event. The largest consumer pilot test yet was recently announced in northern California, and it will involve only ten cars.

What’s remarkable is how unremarkable it was to drive this revolutionary new car design. During our short (pre-beep) time with it, the plug-in provided the same performance as any other new car, with less mess: the same comfort and speed, with fewer economic, environmental, and military repercussions.

That’s the good news.

Actually, it’s only the beginning of the good news. Since driving the car, I’ve been studying up on plug-ins, and they’ve got lots to love.

The good news: Plug-in hybrids . . .

Are perfect for normal days. On any given day, about half of American cars, pickups, vans, and SUVs cover 20 miles or fewer, according to the Pacific Northwest National Labs in Richland, Washington (pdf). So even though plug-in hybrids have a limited all-electric range, a range of just 20 miles per battery charge (roughly what Rob’s plug-in has) would be enough to quench the daily energy demand of half the US fleet. That’s right, half the fleet would burn no gas on any given day.

Tap unused generating capacity. The same paper demonstrates that t
he existing US electric power generation, transmission, and distribution systems have ample unused capacity to charge up plug-ins’ batteries during off hours, mostly at night. Demand for electricity is intermittent and fluctuates both daily and seasonally. In most parts of North America, the entire electric power infrastructure is fully utilized only about 5 percent of the time. Plug-in vehicles could charge up in the off-peak hours, using onboard timers or more sophisticated “smart grid” mechanisms. (This point is often misunderstood: it’s not that plug-ins charge up on electricity that would otherwise go to waste. It’s that power plants have unused capacity. That is, they could operate more of the time, and the extra juice they make could fill plug-ins’ batteries.)

Help us get off oil. Without a single new power plant or high-tension wire, the US electricity grid could supply 73 percent of the energy needed by its light duty vehicles. Getting that much transportation energy through the electric grid, rather than through the petroleum distribution system, would trim US oil imports by half! It could also prevent—and help moderate the economic impacts of—oil price shocks, while keeping more dollars circulating locally.

Cut fuel bills. Electricity is far less expensive per mile driven than oil: it’s like buying gasoline for under a dollar a gallon. And because charging vehicle batteries in off-peak hours would dramatically increase sales of power and allow the amortization of capital costs over more kilowatt hours, the price of electricity would probably decline.

Increase energy flexibility. Electricity is a more versatile energy carrier than gasoline, ethanol, or biodiesel. It’s far easier to transport than liquid fuels and increases energy options. For example, plug-in hybrids can put electricity back into the grid, to help balance loads or increase security.

Boost energy efficiency. In technical, engineering terms, electricity is an efficient energy carrier, whether compared to conventional fossil fuels or hydrogen or biofuels. The makers of the all-electric Tesla sports car make this point well in a geek-ilicious presentation you can watch here (click “view presentation”).

Can store renewable power. Plug-in hybrid vehicles, with their capacity to stockpile electricity, are a much-needed complement to the continued expansion of wind, solar, and other intermittent renewable power sources. On-board batteries could soak up any unused power that flows from wind and solar installations when the winds blow or the sun shines, then use the power whenever it’s needed.

Clean the air where people live. Plug-in hybrids would improve urban and suburban air quality, thanks to plug-ins’ near-zero-emissions from driving. And while emissions of health-threatening pollutants from electricity plants would increase, those plants are typically far removed from population centers. What’s more, power plants’ grand scale makes advanced pollution control systems economic. The industry-supported Electric Power Research Institute and the environmental lobby Natural Resources Defense Council joined together to study the air quality implications of a sudden and sweeping shift to plug-in hybrids. They assumed a worst-case scenario in which almost all of the new power came from coal-fired plants and concluded that emissions of most health-threatening pollutants would diminish markedly.

Could slash greenhouse gas emissions. According to the most comprehensive study of the question yet completed, again by EPRI and NRDC, rapid adoption of plug-in hybrids between now and 2050 could—repeat, could—slash US greenhouse gas emissions by billions of tons, cumulatively. (I know, following the numbers of climate protection is confusing: millions, billions, tons, pounds, barrels. Suffice it to say, billions of tons is a lot—a big deal.)

Unfortunately, there’s bad news, too, of three types: emissions and the law, technological shortcomings, and cost.

Bad news: Emissions today. For starters—and notwithstanding any future greenhouse gas benefits—driving a plug-in hybrid right now in North America probably increases climate-warming emissions, compared with driving a regular hybrid. Why? In a nutshell, because most of a plug-in’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

Now, you might think that running a plug-in hybrid on Cascadian electricity would mean running it largely on emission-free hydro. But that’s a mistake. You see, every watt of hydro and wind electricity that we produce is already spoken for, used to satisfy demand somewhere here or elsewhere in the western power grid. So consuming local power (usually, hydropower) to charge plug-ins means that, somewhere else on the grid, another coal-fired plant has to rev up just a bit to replace the power sucked down by the car’s batteries. Until renewable power becomes so abundant that we get virtually none of our power from dirty coal plants—until we have long periods of each day when we have no other use for some of our wind and solar and hydro power—any marginal demand for baseline power (the night-time power that can recharge plug-in hybrids) will most likely be met by increased generation from coal. (In fact, because of Cascadia’s lack of coal plants, PNNL counts us as the North American region least ready for plug-ins. Ouch.)

Trading gasoline for coal-fired power is a bad deal for the climate. This chart adapted from the EPRI/NRDC report illustrates the situation. The chart shows that, if the electricity that charges a plug-in’s batteries comes exclusively form coal, the total climate-disrupting emissions per mile from a plug-in exceed the emissions from a regular hybrid. (Sorry, Rob. I know that’s got to hurt.)

(I added a note at the bottom explaining more about this chart, for the data hungry.)


Bad news: Emissions tomorrow. Even though today’s power grid doesn’t make plug-ins a good deal for the climate, EPRI and NRDC find that replacing gasoline and diesel vehicles with electric ones will eventually be a climate plus—assuming the electric power system gets cleaner over time. But that’s a big assumption. The only guarantee of clean plug-ins (like those shown in the shortest bars of the chart) would be a firm, descending, legal limit on greenhouse emissions.

So in essence, the real barrier to reducing vehicle emissions isn’t car technology at all. It’s the law. Once we’ve capped greenhouse gas emissions from all sources and implemented an economy-wide tax or cap-and-trade system (auctioned, please!), we can be sure that plug-ins will deliver on their potential climate benefits. Until then, plug-ins will likely be slightly worse for climate than regular hybrids.

Bad news: Batteries are inconvenient. Inventors are improving batteries in a hurry, as this article from the electrical engineering journal Spectrum details. But they’re still a long way from the finish line. Even the best batteries are limited in range, lifetime, and recharge speed. Despite all the high-tech wizardry we can throw at the problem, electricity remains wickedly difficult to store.

Liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel, on the other hand, are terrifically convenient. In less time than it takes your traveling companion to get back from the loo at Exxon, you can pump enough fuel into your tank to drive hundreds of miles. In contrast, recharging your state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery with 20 miles’ worth of electricity takes hours, maybe even all night. And unlike fuel tanks, the storage capacity of batteries shrinks over time, and may eventually require costly replacements.

Bad news: Cost. Charging a plug-in’s batteries is cheap, especially compared with $3 a gallon gas. But the batteries themselves are pricey. (The all-electric Tesla sports car’s half-ton battery system alone costs almost as much as a new Prius, according to the same Spectrum article.) Even the most devout evangelists of plug-in hybrids point to the problem of battery cost. For example, MIT’s Gerbrand Cedar, one of the inventors of the technology behind A123’s battery design, estimates in this presentation that battery costs need to come down by about 60 percent for plug-in technology to compete in the market.

The Hype Cycle

Three of the five trips I took in Rob Lowe’s former ride were delivering car-loads of kids to soccer games. (I had parenting debts to pay.) One thing I’ll say: the plug-in brought squads of people around to talk—far more than have ever noticed us arriving by tandem bicycle or bus. The experience set me thinking about the psychology of vehicle technology.

In 1999, at the height of the fuel-cell craze, I remember listening to car makers and science writers foretelling the imminent arrival of the hydrogen economy. Soon thereafter, hype turned to disillusionment. More recently, biofuels have followed a similar trajectory, in which expectations blossomed far faster than actual market presence and, when unrealistic expectations were not met, the popular sentiment began to switch to rejection. Plug-in hybrids are becoming the new “it” technology in Cascadia, and I worry they’ll fall from favor as quickly as their predecessors.

These technologies all hold promise, plug-ins possibly more even than the others. Fixating on car technology, however, is part of the problem. It perpetuates the hype cycle: every new fuel or power train design leads to a whirlwind romance, followed, eventually, by disenchantment. And the drama distracts from less glamorous but ultimately more effective, political and institutional solutions, such as auctioned cap and trade systems and carbon taxes and complete, compact communities, not to mention feebates and decoupling and efficiency improvements and congestion pricing and pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, and even ride hopping, high-tech hitch-hiking, better public transit, walkshed mapping, and (my current passion) Bicycle Respect.

When we make these changes collectively, through our democratic institutions, vehicle technology will take care of itself. Investors will finance new product development. Consumers will select those products that meet their needs at a price they’re willing to pay. Plug-in hybrids will compete head to head, with fuel-cells, biofuels, bicycles, conventional technologies, and perhaps alternatives we do not yet imagine. And I’ll decide, like everyone else, whether to buy a plug-in hybrid car. For now, though, I’m staying car-less.

Besides, as this photo shows, our car-less trunk is almost as big as Rob Lowe’s.


(Boring details about the chart, in case you’re interested: Extracting, transporting, and especially refining petroleum burns a lot of oil. The resulting greenhouse gases, shown in blue, are called “well to tank” emissions (measured in this chart in grams of CO2 equivalent). The emissions, shown in red, from your exhaust pipe are called “tank to wheels.” The emissions that come from the electric power system are shown in yellow. As you can see, total emissions per typical mile are higher for a plug-in running on electricity from an old or new coal-fired power plant than for a regular hybrid. The plug-in hybrid reduces emissions if it’s run on power from a natural-gas-fired power plant, especially from one of the better ones, which are called combined cycle plants. Unfortunately, plug-in hybrids are unlikely to charge up on natural-gas power because of the costs of operating natural gas plants. Utilities tend to operate them mostly in peak periods, because their fuel is expensive. What’s more, natural gas prices are rising because North American natural gas production has peaked and hauling the stuff across oceans is expensive. Plug-ins cause much less climate pollution than regular hybrids if they’re juiced up on renewables or “advanced coal with sequestration.” This last option, technically called “integrated combined cycle gasification with carbon capture and storage,” is an experimental technology with promise but also a lot of technical barriers still to cross. Read more about it in this book by Simon Fraser University’s energy guru Mark Jaccard.)

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  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    “any marginal demand for baseline power (the night-time power that can recharge plug-in hybrids) will most likely be met by increased generation from coal. (In fact, because of Cascadia’s lack of coal plants, PNNL counts us as the North American region least ready for plug-ins. “I’m missing some of the logic here. Let’s compare a future plug-in hybrid (PEH) user in Seattle (Sam) to one in a coal-based city that buys electricity from WA (Cheyenne). Let’s say a PEH takes 17kWh to charge overnight, and Cheyenne’s leaky refrigerator takes 15kWh.First, neither owns a PEH. When Cheyenne’s refrigerator runs at night some of the energy comes from Washington dams, running through hundred of miles of wire. Total coal energy used: 0, Total hydro energy used: 17kWh (15kWh for refrigerator, plus 2kWh transmission losses)Next, Sam buys a PEH. Now instead of electricity running to Cheyenne, her refrigerator gets its energy from a local coal plant. Total coal energy used: 15kWh (fridge), total hydro energy used: 17kWh (hybrid)Then Cheyenne buys a PEH as well. Her refrigerator still gets its energy from a local coal plant, but now her car is also charged from this coal plant. Total coal energy used: 32kWh (fridge + hybrid), total hydro energy used: 17kWh (hybrid).So, Sam’s hybrid has the effect of increasing coal use by 15kWh, whereas Cheyenne’s hybrid increased coal use by 17kWh. This is because both Sam and Cheyenne are using energy near where it was generated, instead of shipping it across the country.Therefore Cascadia should be the region most ready for PEH’s, right? What am I missing?

  2. Alan Durning says:

    Matt the Engineer, What I meant was that the Northwest has the least unused electric generating capacity of any US region. On average, 73 percent of light-duty vehicle energy demand could be met with existing power infrastructure in the United States. In the Northwest, just 18 percent could—the lowest share of any part of the country.You can see this relationship in the map and table on page 11 of this PNNL paper.

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    What I’m (still) missing is why unused generating capacity matters region-by-region. If we currently ship our electrons to other regions – and that’s the reason we have little unused capacity – wouldn’t it make more sense for us to use these electrons and let them use their unused capacity? Yes, unused capacity does matter overall – or our nation would run out of power when everyone plugs in. But if we have to use more energy somewhere, doesn’t it make sense to use it at the source?

  4. Alan Durning says:

    You make an interesting point, Matt the Engineer. Avoiding transmission losses is a good idea, and you may be right about “readiness.” Still, my grasp of electricity dispatch systems and markets is tenuous enough that I tend to trust source like PNNL over my own reasoning. So I’m not taking a position on the fine point of whether we’re less “plug-in ready.”The larger point is key: if plug-ins are charged on juice from coal plants, they’re not boons for the climate. That’s the big deal. Transmission losses are small potatoes in comparison. As I understand it, Cascadia “ships” diminishing numbers of unused electrons anymore. When we do ship them, we’re displacing fossil-powered electrons, which is a big climate plus. Converting the vehicle fleet to electric, whether here or elsewhere, is a great idea if, and only if, we put a diminishing cap on emissions overall.Can you agree with that?

  5. Matt the Engineer says:

    Definately. Switching our transportation fuel is just one step toward a solution, but it is an important step. As you point out, large infrastructure changes are neccessary to go the rest of the way. Sorry I’m picking on one of the finer points of your article (which I enjoyed, as usual), it just surprised me that an electric vehicle would be less of a good idea in the hydroelectric northwest than the rest of the country.

  6. Clark Williams-Derry says:

    In the near term, I think that the fact that the NW isn’t “PHEV-ready” isn’t so relevant. Even if we’re optimistic about PHEV growth, it’ll be years and years before there are enough PHEVs in the Northwest to tap out our spare nighttime generating capacity (which is what the PNNL was looking at, as I understand).More relevant is the claim that any additional baseline demand will get met by coal—which the EPRI/NRDC chart suggests makes a PHEV worse than a regular hybrid.Now, I think it’s possible to argue that marginal generation may not come from coal, but from natural gas: nighttime power needs can be met with extra hydro, with more peak power from gas and less from hydro. I’m sure people can & will make this claim. But like Alan, I’m not convinced—that seems unlikely as long as coal is cheap. But if coal & gas emissions do get priced correctly, so that coal becomes more expensive than gas, then PHEVs’ marginal power may come from gas. But that’s a function of the carbon pricing policy, not of PHEVs themselves. With proper carbon pricing, or an enforceable cap, it’s the policy that creates the emissions benefits, not the particular technologies that people use to cope with rising prices.

  7. promote says:

    This is very interesting Alan. I think it is definitely a step in the right direction. I first saw a plug in hybrid at the Green Car Company in Kirkland and am very interested. Could you pass along the contact info for City’s program manager?I like to speak to them about this car and whether it is a viable option for us to buy for the Eastside Business Green Vehicle Challenge.

  8. Alan Durning says:

    promote,Please contact me directly and I’ll put you in touch.

  9. barry says:

    Another interesting post about cars and transportation, Alan. Thanks.I have to say as a Prius owner i was looking forward to upgrading to plug-in next year. I can’t stand the fact that all long-distance transport options power iraq war and climate change. Grid gave hope to move some of our decreasing transport miles to BC’s very low ghg grid. But if your analysis is right, that isn’t possible.It also opens up a much larger issue than just the plug-in hybrid future. Your argument that gasoline is better for climate than grid for additional electricity demand seems to have far reaching consequences. It makes sense to me that it would not just apply to demand by cars. It would apply to any new electricity demand by homes and biz as well. Doesn’t the same logic say we should be running new homes off even gasoline generators rather than hooking up to grid? Wouldn’t it be cleaner for new subdivisions and office buildings, even in cascadia to be powered by propane, natural gas or gasoline generators than the grid? It seems counter-intuitive to avoid BC grid in favour of burning more fossil fuels…but many things with climate change are counter-intuitive.Our family has been following a standard path to reduce our carbon footprint which includes “fuel switching” from fossil fuels to clean electricity as part of it. And we’ve been advising other folks to do the same. But perhaps we have it all wrong and should instead be moving from grid power to gasoline or propane to run our home. Confusing options. What do you think? Should climate change aware folks be burning fossil fuels locally instead of using the grid? Do we have “fuel switching” backwards? Is there a path to non-carbon transport that doesn’t make things worse? If we have the money to move our Prius to plug-in in BC…should we?Any thoughts on this tangle would be appreciated.

  10. SirKulat says:

    Terrific coverage of a Prius Plug-in, Alan. PHEV is the acronym I prefer for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. You could add the following benefits:SAFETY: PHEVs are likely to prove the safest vehicle technology. Regenerative braking is “Advanced Braking” as well as energy recovery. Battery weight strategically located can lower center-of-gravity, improving handling and stability, especially important for top-heavy roll-prone SUVs. Electric motor drive has a ‘flat’ torque curve which does not lead to ‘manaical’ accelleration and speed course racing (as much as a standard drivetrain). LAND-USE AFFECTS: Low cost all-electric operation encourages a shorter daily driving range, which encourages patronage of local economies, which leads to the development of destinations accessable without having to drive. Walking and bicyling become more practical travel option when PHEV traffic is less dangerously speedy. Walkable urban/suburban environs are more compact and better for the practical arrangement of mass transit. PHEVs can improve local and regional economies. BATTERY PLUS: The (lower cost) NiMh battery may be more suited to PHEVs than Li-Ion in many regards. As mentioned above, its strategically placed weight is indeed an invaluable safety factor. (What cost safety?) In addition, the batteries offer a 2nd life as household power supply for ‘low-demand’ purposes. Household Power: Combine rooftop photovoltiac solar panels with PHEV batteries (both in-vehicle and stationary) creates a household power supply invaluable in an emergency or grid failure. It also creates the means to more carefully monitor household electricity use and conservation. When enough of such households connect to the utility grid, Public Power is a mere step away. APPLICABILITY: PHEV technology is applicable to all weight classes of vehicle, from compact to heavy duty freight, unlike hydrogen which applies mostly to lightweight vehicles. FUEL FLEXIBILITY: PHEV can utilize any available fuel, including hydrogen, and maximize their efficient combustion. PHEV has the potential to exceed 500mpg on any fuel. Please add these features to the PHEV list of benefits, especially SAFETY and LAND-USE AFFECT. We really don’t need to build a better car as much as build better cities and suburbs.

  11. hearth says:

    Like all new vehicle technologies, there are also energy and GHG costs of manufacturing the new vehicles, to replace the old technology, plus the costs of manufacturing and replacing the batteries.As a user of Flex-car, you should have included carsharing in your list of alternatives. After all, sharing is mankind’s oldest ‘technology.’Also carsharing offers the opportunity to utilize short-range, small, light neighbourhood vehicles that could be powered by electricity _without_ any gas engine on-board. Unlinking the driver from the vehicle, the driver can pick the vehicle for each trip, rather than having to but a vehicle that will satisfy a full four/five-year period of driving, which those who own their own car have to do.Chris BradshawOttawa

  12. john says:

    Great article, Alan, and well sourced. As with almost all new technologies, price, reliability, and consumer behavior will determine whether plug-in vehicles will be adopted to create a significant market. The potential benefits of plug-in vehicles (I include here hybrid electric like the Prius and fully battery electric like the Tesla Roadster or AC propulsion’s eBOX) are so significant that federal, state, and local policy should fully investigate the opportunity these vehicles can provide. This is in addition to efforts to reduce vehicle miles traveled through ride-sharing,mass transportation, and transit-oriented development. As you point out, plug-in vehicles can provide storage for intermittent renewable energy resources of wind and solar power. This is a key enabler of large-scale renewable energy use, as storage is required to overcome the barrier of intermittancy, a point made by critics of solar and particularly wind. For just one example, in a public forum Mark Kapner of Austin Energy noted the utility has to dump power or idle capacity of its wind farms at night because they have installed too much wind capacity, and are now looking to storage through plug-in vehicles to further grow their wind power supply. Autin Energy is one of the key founders/sponsors of the non-profit Plug-in Partners. If a market develops for plug-in vehicles, battery technology will advance but costs will drop. At this point electric utilities may find it economic to install such batteries in their distribution systems, providing distributed storage of electricity (along with distributed generation through wind and solar), and help to stabilize grid performance. A key second point regards GHG emissions. There have been several other reports supporting the conclusions you cite from the EPRI/NDRC, of which the NDRC said: “NRDC does believe that with sufficient emissions controls in place, PHEVs have the potential to improve air quality and to substantially contribute to meeting our long term GHG reduction goals of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.” In particular, one must look at the primary energy sources for electricity in their region, to determine whether there will be GHG reduction by use of plug-in vehicles. For example, only half of NJ electricity is generated by FF-sources (the balance is from nuclear), so using 20-mile electric range PHEVs would reduce GHG emissions 50% compared to a conventional vehicle, while a BEV would achieve an 80% reduction. These are highly significant reductions. While other parts of the US and the world are more dependent on FF-energy sources, hose locations would not be the place to site large numbers of plug-in vehicles to reduce GHGs, at least not until these regions transition to sustainable energy sources. A final point, about price. There are a number of studies, performed by Argonne National Labs, and the Advanced Battery Consortium, and also cited in the May ’07 Expert Review of Plug-in Vehicles for CARB, indicating that when cumulative production begins to approach several hundred thousand vehicles, the cost curve will drop so the compared to a conventional vehicle the marginal cost of a PHEV should only be a few thousand dollars. When total lifecycle cost are included (fuel, O, tax credits, ZEV credits, NOx credits, possible V2G revenue), the PHEV will cost less. But that is not currently the case. I hope your readers support aggressive State and Federal policy that can accelerate the development and commercialization of electric vehicles. The sooner these become viable, the sooner will begin to mitigate the consequences of peak oil production. John MacklinNew Jersey

  13. Alan Durning says:

    Little did I know that technology consulting firm Gartner Research has made a business out of studying the “hype cycle” (Go <a href=''>here, for example.)The cycle begins with a “Technology Trigger,” followed by a “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” then a “Trough of Disillusionment.” Eventually comes the “Slope of Enlightenment” and the “Plateau of Productivity.”(Hat tip to Charlie Weiss of LaunchBox in Portland for this!)

  14. Alan Durning says:

    Barry,Great questions and comments. The large point here—the REALLY BIG, IMPORTANT, ESSENTIAL, GIGANTIC, OVERWHELMINGLY SIGNIFICANT POINT—is that no individual consumer can determine the system-wide impacts of his or her electricity choices. So we should NEVER LOSE SIGHT of WINNING AN EFFICIENT, EFFECTIVE, AND FAIR CLIMATE PRICING SYSTEM. The main challenge we face is political, not personal!Now, because we all want to align our personal behaviors with this goal, it’s worthwhile to also think about personal choices. And there are no perfect answers, because we’re dealing with a dynamic system. My own personal choice has been based on thermodynamic efficiency. I try to save electricity for applications in which high-quality energy is needed: running electronics, motors, lights, and the like. I try to use low quality energy for low-quality energy purposes, like heating space, water, or food. So, my house has a natural gas heating system (an integrated space and water heater), a gas range, and a gas clothes dryer. We only use electricity for heating in the oven, the toaster, and my daughter’s hair dryer. (Oh, and we have a portable space heater we crank up in the basement by the family computer about four times a winter.) The result is far more direct emissions of greenhouse gases from my house than if I ran it all on Seattle City Light’s super-low-emissions electricity. But I figure, whatever electricity I don’t use will get sold onto the Western power grid where it will replace fossil-based electricity. If it’s at an off-peak hour, that electricity will probably be from coal, which has much larger greenhouse gas emissions than burning gas in my house. If it’s at a peak hour, that electricity will probably be from natural gas. And burning natural gas to make electricity to make resistance heat in my house is only about half as efficient as burning the gas in my house itself.I’ve never thought of burning liquid fuels in our home. They’re lower emissions than coal, but they pollute local air much more than natural gas. Actually, wait, we used to have an oil furnace in an old house. Oil heat causes fewer ghg emissions than coal-fired electric heat.My blanket aversion to heating with electricity is inherited largely from Amory Lovins. My colleague Clark Williams-Derry points out, however, that heating (or cooling) with an electric heat pump is actually more efficient, in thermodynamic terms, than heating by burning natural gas. So if a heat pump is an option for you, that would be even better than burning gas.And let’s not forget that climate isn’t the only consideration. Coal is especially bad for the climate, but oil is bad for the economy, security, and urban air. So running a diesel generator at home seems a bad idea (and no fun, either).In sum: in the current electric grid, it’s probably better for the climate to heat with natural gas than with electricity.

  15. Alan Durning says:

    hearth (Chris Bradshaw),I was trying to get through at least one of my car-less posts without mentioning car-sharing. Darn!I thought, actually, about whether car-sharing + plug-ins might be a match made in heaven. It’s a possibility, because the high utilization rate of car-share vehicles might shorten the pay-back period on the plug-in kit. Trouble is, plug-ins do best when they’re left to fully recharge once or twice a day. So heavily used car-share vehicles might be carrying around heavy, depleted batteries a fair bit of the time. On the other hand, maybe they’re driven on shorter trips and would match up well with recharge schedules. It’s hard to say. Perhaps our friends in the car-sharing business have modeled this?

  16. Alan Durning says:

    SI,Thanks for your notes. The situation in Austin is exactly the case where plug-ins may be most promising: where there’s actually more windpower than there is power demand during certain hours.My impression is that such a situation is unusual at present. That is, fossil-fuel-fired power plants (which must pay for fuel) can usually just ramp down a little when the winds blow harder and fuel-free wind farms are juicing up the grid.Oh, and about New Jersey’s nuclear power. Plug-ins are best analyzed in terms of the “marginal kilowatt,” not the average kilowatt. If they’re typical, New Jersey’s nuclear plants run round the clock. They provide base load power. Adding to power demand in New Jersey, by plugging in your car to charge up, does not cause nuclear electricity production to change. Instead, it causes fossil-fuel power production to increase slightly. At peak hours, it probably causes gas-fired power plants to crank up a little. Off peak (at midday and overnight, when most plug-in charging happens), it probably causes coal-fired plants to burn a little more fuel. This dynamic is similar to Cascadia’s hydro-based power system. The marginal kilowatt hour is from burning fossil fuels.

  17. john says:

    Alan,Thanks for your response. Regarding the marginal kilowatt-hr (which in NJ may be natural gas as well as coal), I note that overnight waste of electricity: lights left on, A/C units running throughout the night (suggesting temp settings very low) or on nights when daytime temps hit all of 75 deg, etc; one might question how to attrbute that marginal kWh. To the plug-in because it is the new load? Or to the inefficient and wasteful use of electricty for lack of thought or concern for the consequences.To attribute the marginal kWh to the plug-in is to grandfather in the historic use of nighttime electricity without asking it’s relative value.Finally there is no benefit for storage from a light left on, in contrast to a plug-in vehicle.

  18. Alan Durning says:

    SI,Good points.But, with or without plug-ins (and, in the long run, I sure hope it’s “with”), we should eliminate waste. That’s the highest priority of all—a lunch we get paid to eat, as Amory says.

  19. morrison_jay says:

    Alan,One of the key advantages for Wind power in the Pacfic Northwest is the existence of so much hydroelectricity. Essentially wind and hydro have huge synergies for storing electricity. When coal or nuclear are the baseload power for a region, then unused wind power is wasted. Wind power generated during low demand (night) is not stored for use during high demand periods of time (hot days with air conditioning being used). But when you have a lot of hydro (Washington, Oregon) where hydro provides baseload power, then you gain significant synergies for storing electricity.Hydroelectricity provides instant backup for wind energy. And it can be scaled up or down to match demand much more easily than coal or nuclear. The end result is, wind power is MUCH more effective and efficient in areas like Washington and Oregon where as much as 70% of the grid is hydroelectricity.Washington State currently has 6,000 MW of wind projects on the board in some stage of planning. Already about 1,000 MW is operating. Every turbine spinning is basically allowing the hydroelectric systems to preserve more water for more efficient use in generating electricity or better water management for salmon, etc.How does this matter for plug-in hybrids? It means that we actually will be better prepared to charge them with zero carbon energy from wind and hydro. The massive amounts of wind power coming online in the next 10 years will be huge. And many of those wind turbines are going to be built in the pacific northwest in order to take advantage of the synergies of the hydroelectric system here.All of those dams are basically battery storage devices.

  20. barry says:

    Alan,I agree with you on the point that coal is worse than most other fossil fuel choices. I also agree that solving coal will only happen when most people act together (aka political). A few individuals won’t kill king coal.However i have to disagree with you on the main point in your article and your comment. You say the best choice for dealing with coal and climate change when buying a new car/appliance is to shun electricity, and opt for something that burns fossil fuels locally. You tip the hat to the all fossil fuel Prius vs partial grid Prius. You say natural gas burning in the home for cooking, heat, hot water and clothes drying is better than electricity. I think this advice is counter-productive in the long run for several reasons:1) NO FUTURE FOR FOSSIL FUELS. Burning fossil fuels at home is not part of sustainable future. The home and transportation world we have to create does not include burning fossil fuels in any quantity at home. Living in the required 90% or 100% ghg reduced world automatically rules out any personal fossil fuel use. Buying new fossil fuel machines that have life spans of decades is infrastructure disaster. It might makes sense for a few years…but not for the lifetime of the millions of machines and appliances involved.2) ELECTRICITY IS ONLY LOW-GHG HOPEAll the major very low ghg fuel sources generate electricity…none generate natural gas, propane, gasoline on any major scale. Solar, wind, tidal, wave, geo-thermal, hydro and so on give us electricity. Also, any hope to use fossil fuels in the low-ghg future requires carbon-capture. This can only be done at huge scale of electric power plants. So electricity is the fuel of the future…if we are going to have a future.3) YOU CAN’T DECARBONIZE FOSSIL FUELS LOCALLYIndividuals and society can reduce the ghg emissions from our electric machines over their lifetimes…by moving to cleaner electricity sourcing. But individuals and society can’t reduce ghg impact of hundreds of millions of fossil fuel burning machines and appliances. These are stuck at given ghg level for lifetime of the machine/appliance. As society forces emissions down, fossil fuel burning appliances and machines are incapable of responding. The only solution is to use them less. As they are used less, their lifetime expands.4) YOU CAN CONTROL GRID IMPACTDespite your all-caps statement to the contrary, I believe you can control your ghg impact on the grid. You can do this by paying the extra premium to fund low ghg power sources like solar and wind directly. Lots of companies let you buy green power now. This is no different than paying extra to buy organic potatoes instead of industrial ones. Food is a transnational commodity with it’s own distribution “grid” like electricity. Paying more to buy organic expands organic farming. It is no different than what would happen with politically imposed price on carbon emissions. In addition you can also create your own low ghg electricity locally via solar and wind and mix that in. Try to do that to feed your natural gas beasts.5) THERMODYNAMIC SHERMODYNAMICThe “thermodynamic efficiency” argument about electricity is a red herring. It drives me crazy how often this is brought up because it gets in the way of clearly seeing the path we need to take. It is a physics gee-whiz kinda thing for power wonks. In the real world it is meaningless. The concept is that “high-quality” energy is to be reserved for “high-quality” uses so that we don’t waste some percentage of the energy. But really all the energy we use for just about everything is massively inefficient for the tasks we are doing…much more inefficient than using electricity for heating water. For example: drilling deep into the earth and extracting ancient natural gas…then shipping it hundreds or thousands of miles under pressure through all that buried branching pipe network…then burning it to dry clothes in a gas clothes dryer is 100% inefficient. Clothes dry by themselves. Similarly generating electricity and shipping it on wires across vast landscapes to dry your hair is 100% inefficient. Hair dries by itself. However, water does not get hot by itself and food does not cook by itself. Another example: For my family to visit relatives in california we could fly or drive in our Prius. Flying would be 88% less fuel efficient, AND have 25 times the climate change impact. Yet most of people who give me the “high-quality” argument fly regularly. Driving alone in an SUV vs sub-compact is similarly massively inefficient. So i’m at a loss when people say we can’t switch from fossil fuels to electricity for life’s basic needs like cooking and hot water, because we just can’t accept that inefficiency. We massively waste up to 100% of energy all the time and in far greater quantities. The bottom line is that the 1 ghg tonne future requires us to move to electricity for almost everything. You can get very low ghg electricity from the grid now. The solution to coal is politcal and needs to happen before most new fossil fuel machines and appliances will wear out. Social change is non-linear and has been happening on climate change at non-linear rate for last couple years. A miserable scenario is trying to force hundreds of millions of serviceable, inflexible fossil fuel machines and appliances to not be used…after environmentalists asked people to buy them.However, if you still think burning fossil fuels in the home and cars is better than using electricity, because of coal, then you should advise people to start producing their own electricity at home via gasoline generators, like honda’s new eco-inverters or via natural gas co-gen.

  21. Ben says:

    I do wish that when evaluating the environmental impact of the car, that we would just get past the whole “burning oil” bit. It’s not that it’s not a part of the equation, it’s that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s the easiest target to aim for, and it’s in the forefront of everybody’s mind (at the moment). However, there are plenty of other environmental concerns that need to be considered no matter what the vehicle runs on. So in the spirit of the above poster, SirKulat. Here are the cons associated with PHEV/PEV:1) TRAFFIC: It doesn’t matter if it runs on gas, liquid coal, hydrogen, electricity, or air. You’re still going to be sitting in traffic.2) BAD CITY PLANNING: Again, changing the fuel source isn’t going to change bad planning decisions, including: wasted space for parking, increased sprawl, and less walkability overall. None of the PHEV vehicles being proposed have any limits like the earlier electric cars (limited speed, limited range, etc.) Earlier electric vehicles, because of these limitations, would have at least meant a change in urban density and city planning. (If you could only go 35-40 MPH, you’re not going to be making too many trips on the freeway.)3) NON-OIL ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS: This is the hardest to talk about, because it’s mostly invisible to most people. These are the things such as tire dust that end up in the run off water from the roads, which in one study has shown to be a significant source to the Zinc deposits in an area. That’s even before you “recycle” the tires. The biggest use for old tires is as fuel (44.7%). This isn’t as high profile as, say, the “rubberized asphalt” that they use now at parks, which means that most people aren’t aware that the tire they took in for recycling is going to be ground up and burned for fuel. This is just the tires on the car. This doesn’t include the possibility of strip mining (to increase lithium/nickle production for PHEV batteries), salt on the roads (from de-icing) leeching into the surrounding ecology, or increased stress from noise (most noise from a modern car is from the tires, not from the engine itself. The act of a hollow rubber body filled with air rolling along the road. This is what causes the greatest amount of noise.I don’t believe that encouraging everybody to buy a PHEV is a good trade. It’s removing the most visible problem (emissions & oil politics) while not addressing any of the hidden environmental and social costs that being car-centric causes. It’s a bit like three-card monte: a lot of misdirection (intentionally or otherwise) that keeps you from seeing the whole picture. I do believe that Flexcar would be better off migrating their entire fleet to these types of vehicles, but that to try to market these as “the ideal solution” is too much for me to swallow.

  22. gerneitz1 says:

    Your info on A123 is pretty good but says nothing about the Altairnano. This battery technology was bought up by none other than GM. They were going to build a factory overseas and bring it out”next year”, they said. The Altair lithium ion batteries have a recycle life of twenty-three years at 10,000 cycles instead of the A123 at 2500 cycles. My research tells me that batteries aren’t the problem with plug-ins as the batteries last 100,000 miles to 200,000 miles as from Toyota. You should also please note that GM bought the rights to the Osmonic battery when it appeared and never produced that one. They recently sold their Osmonic patent rights to an, gasp, oil company. You really should check out author Black and the history behind electric cars, batteries and the internal combustion engine. He supports his history with the facts. Gm will tell you whatever you wish to hear. Their deeds conflict with their PR.As I too have lived off of a bike in Minneapolis and tried to raise a family, I know that it is not just feasible but do-able. I do not now do so for mitigating factors but did so for over ten years.

  23. Dave Ewoldt says:

    Oh, Alan… what’s happened to you? I never thought I’d see the day when I couldn’t tell the difference between reading something you’d written and the nonsense espoused by the high-priest of the techno-rapture, Amory Lovins.Car culture contributes to the death of the planet by normalizing sprawl, pavement, and separation. Yes, in a sustainable culture there will be times when a car or light-truck is the best choice, but encouraging our dependence on private automobiles serves one primary purpose: debt-based economic growth.EVs will clean the air where we live? Is there another planet I’m not aware of that we can use? How could anyone who is aware of the interconnected nature of reality state that situating power plants in less populated areas is better for our overall health? The only thing this does is make the health ramification less easily apparent.How could you accept, at face-value, the statement from PNNL that the Northwest is less ready for plug-ins? The only thing their spin does is point out the idiocy of the central energy grid. The Northwest exports clean hydropower and then has to import dirty coal power to meet its needs. Thus, electric vehicles become a justification for continuing coal subsidies. What a racket!No automobile—hybrid, flex-fuel, or pure electric—will ever compete with a bicycle in terms of impact on the Earth. The public infrastructure needed for bikes is much less, and there’s still no way to get around the fact that about 50% of a vehicle’s greenhouse gas contribution occurs during the extraction and processing of the raw materials, and its manufacture and distribution. The miliatry repercussions of this don’t go away simply because fossil fuel use decreases, they merely shift to other regions for other resources.

  24. Alan Durning says:

    Updates:Recently, there’s been a lively and informative discussion on two blogs about whether plug-ins pose some risks, along with many opportunities (as I argued above) or whether they’re sure-fire good things.Both were sparked by a skeptical article in USA Today, which you’ll find incorporated in the first blog.CalCars.NRDC’s blog.Check out the discussion!

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