Plug-In Hybrids Could Help Cut Emissions

Plug-In Hybrids are not yet available, but new research says that when they are their use could slash emissions by, well… a lot. Theoretically, plug-in hybrids could be driven up to 40 miles a day on electricity alone. More good news: using electricity for fuel wouldn’t harm the power grid and the equivalent cost would be about $1 a gallon. But can car manufacturers make the cars cheap enough and the electric company make power clean enough to sell the idea to the American public?

The upbeat news for plug-ins, seen by many as the next big step in environmentally friendly automotive technology, came with two caveats. Achieving the maximum air quality improvements would require a significant cut in the pollution produced by electric utilities. It’s also dependent on large-scale adoption of plug-in hybrids, which may not be in new-car showrooms for several years.

Even so, backers of plug-in technology were heartened by the latest findings, which could help defuse the charge that the vehicles would simply transfer the source of air pollution from vehicle tailpipes to power station smokestacks.

The study “finally gives an environmental stamp of approval” to plug-in hybrids, said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an advocacy group in Palo Alto, Calif. “It shows that even with today’s power grid, plug-in hybrids are a great idea.”

Plug-in hybrids sound pretty cool. The main thing holding them back is the lithium-ion battery technology, which, as laptop owners already know, could use a lot more work.

Study: plug-in hybrids cut emissions, don’t hurt power grid [LA Times]
(Photo:Kreg)

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  1. FLConsumer says:

    Oh, I’m sure the utilities would love this, not.

    There’s a reason the utilities offer all sorts of conservation programs — it’s cheaper to reduce consumption than build new plants. With all of the NIMBYs on power plants, utilities are trying to stretch the lifespan of their current plants.

    Also, FWIW, there are conversion kits out there for both the Civic hybrid & Prius hybrid to allow you to plug in your hybrid.

  2. sleze69 says:

    @FLConsumer:

    “There’s a reason the utilities offer all sorts of conservation programs — it’s cheaper to reduce consumption than build new plants. With all of the NIMBYs on power plants, utilities are trying to stretch the lifespan of their current plants.”

    Most people will be plugging their hybrids in during off peak hours. The same hours that the utilities offer non-peak rates. They would have no problem supporting this.

  3. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    Don’t worry, if this gets to working so well that it becomes a threat to big oil, they’ll just recall and destroy the cars again.
    But the huge price tags should help to contain this latest ‘fad.’ At least for the next 5-10 years before the oil runs out.

  4. Athenor says:

    “Most people will be plugging their hybrids in during off peak hours. The same hours that the utilities offer non-peak rates. They would have no problem supporting this.”

    But.. if everyone is plugging in their cars on off-peak hours, then won’t they become peak hours?

    This is something I’ve never understood. “Off-peak” is because things like Air Conditioning and lighting and the like aren’t typically running for most homes. Yet here, we are introducing a major source of use (I highly doubt the “plug” will be 120v), which will probably take a decent amount of time to charge. Now multiple this by tens of thousands, if it is adopted successfully.

    Yes, it will improve emissions, but it will also be a significant load on the power grid.

    I still think we should be looking at renovating/updating the power plants, but as the piece said.. NIMBY.

    (I find power plants cool, myself, and don’t mind them… But I am weird.)

  5. bohemian says:

    There are e

  6. bohemian says:

    There are people who put solar panels on their roof, collect the energy all day into a battery bank and then transfer that to their car when they get home. With the right gear you could provide all or most of your “refueling” without the grid.
    The technology push it will take to get all of this to the next level (batteries) and get costs down on the gear to make people adopt this requires we get someone who is not tied to oil companies in the white house. Someone leaning more towards silicon valley would push this.

  7. ptkdude says:

    I’m sorry, why on Earth would you sell a plug in car in a state that is notorious for having rolling blackouts because they are short on electricity?

    This very story actually prompted me to start blogging about stupid stuff I see in the news.

  8. The_Duke says:

    You can burn oil (in the form of gas), or you can burn coal (from using electricity). Pick one. Until this country wises up and puts a couple of nuke plants in every state, we are going to have an emissions problem. I would much rather run a nuke plant for a year and end up with a baseball sized (and fully contained!) piece of nuke waste to deal with, than have coal/oil/gas particles floating through the air unchecked. But that’s just me…

  9. rwakelan says:

    @The_Duke: Or use a breeder reactor and the final waste only exists for a couple decades. But then again, that makes dangerous plutonium available to the general public, because of course every terrorist has access to the core of this nation’s reactors…

  10. anatak says:

    “It shows that even with today’s power grid, plug-in hybrids are a great idea.”

    I’ll believe it when I see it.

  11. Kornkob says:

    @The_Duke: It’s far easier and more efficient to regulate and control emissions from a centralized power plant than to do the same with thousands of rolling power plants (like we have now in each and every car).

  12. gibwar says:

    @The_Duke: Ain’t that the truth! I’m all for nuclear power – but people today are afraid of it… *sigh*

  13. Mojosan says:

    Thank goodness the electricity fairy will create all that juice to power the cars from rainbows and gumdrops and not coal.

    The same people who are hysterical over our need to plug in cars are the same people who were hysterically against building nuclear power plants 30 years ago.

  14. LoneRider says:

    I must enter the fray, still no one is looking at the environmental effects of the batteries themselves. I have yet to see Mr. Greenypants Toyota explain how all of the Prius batteries are going to be disposed of? How is the automobile recycling industry going to handle the exotic batteries and weight reducing materials in the current crop of parallel hybrids such as the that Prius?

  15. AskCars says:

    Ford announced a deal with a California utility to study a fleet of about 40 plug-ins over the next year and their impact on the grid. Until real life testing happens I don’t see how anyone could give a stamp of approval to mass adoption. How many cars are on the road? hundreds of millions? Plug them all in and it wouldn’t have an impact?

    Also yes, all the prototypes being developed right now use a standard household plug.

  16. Hobo-NC says:

    The study cited by the LAT says that the cut in emissions “would” occur “if” power plants became more efficient. So it is not guaranteed, only conditional.

    In the US, over 50% of all electricity is from coal. So how again is a coal-burning car saving the planet? Unless we get all nuked up and ready to go, then electricity is a sham for reducing pollution. Nuclear is only 19% of electricity now, and the EIA projects that nuke power will shoulder *less* of the load by 2030 and coal usage will increase substantially.

    [www.eia.doe.gov]

  17. mac-phisto says:

    @Athenor: it’s not just that homes use less electricity during evening hours – it’s also that most businesses significantly reduce their consumption. even the added strain of thousands of vehicles plugged into the grid, it wouldn’t compare to the daytime consumption of electricity due to commerce & manufacturing.

    also, trickle chargers don’t use very much electricity anyway. even at 10 amps (which is high for an overnite charger), you’re looking at nominal energy usage over 8 hours.

    @The_Duke: don’t forget we use a lot of hydro also & there’s loads of wind farms popping up all over the country (probably due to the relatively low deployment cost). nuclear is great, but there are other wastes to keep in mind besides a depleted fuel pellet. the majority of the high-level radioactive waste occurs during the enrichment process, but other low-level waste also results from the reaction (such as waste water, lead & sodium depending on reactor type).

    reprocessing fuel would significantly reduce the amount of high-level radioactive waste, & from my understanding, it is fairly inexpensive to retro-fit our reactors to process it. since we no longer really need our nuclear fuel program to support our production of nuclear weapons, it’s unclear why this hasn’t been undertaken.

  18. PlayWithSlurry says:

    @ mojosan
    I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve read it seems power plants have a lot of surplus capacity at night. There are fewer lights, less air conditioning and computer and industrial machinery usage. It isn’t as if there is some finite supply of power in the grid that plug-ins and conventional uses will have to compete for. The energy is “stored” in whatever the utility uses to generate power (coal, fissile material, etc.). If it were practicable to store energy generated at slack times upstream in the grid summer brownouts or blackouts wouldn’t occur.

  19. vladthepaler says:

    Power plants cause pollution too… heck, a lot of them still burn coal. So I’m curious whether this plug-in-your-car concept would actually be any less harmful to the environment than, say, a modern hybrid.

  20. InThrees says:

    A few things: (apologies if I’m repeating someone – consider it consolidation)

    - “All your eggs in one basket” is vastly more efficient when talking about power generation. A handful of power plants will do the job better than millions of miniature (internal combustion engines) power plants.

    - When plug in hybrids become available, there won’t be a mass exodus. It will probably be steady but somewhat slow. The power industry should have plenty of time to increase capacity if and when it’s needed.

    - A move to plug in hybrids will probably spur development and deployment of solar power. Have you ever really LOOKED at an urban scene? I do it occasionally, and it amazes me how I just ‘tune out’ the power lines everywhere. Some day, people will tune out the solar cells.

  21. QuantumRiff says:

    @vladthepaler: Its much easier to control and monitor the pollution from a few thousand power plants than from a few million cars.

    Also, the plug in hybrids seem to be a regular hybrid, with a little more batteries, that have a charge controller to ensure that the battery is powered up all the way at night.. You can currently buy them now, but they void the warranty.. Some guys are getting close to 100MPG having a few extra batteries charged up.

  22. swalve says:

    And, thrillingly, causing more off-peak load could conceivably cause MORE pollution. The power companies charge peak rates because “on demand” peak electricity is more expensive than the base load. Coal is the cheapest fuel (*), but it doesn’t work well for peak power. It’s not easy to fire coal plants up and down with demand, they work best running steady state. So the more steady state load we demand, the more coal we consume.

    (They either buy peak electricity on the market (Enron), or they use natural-gas fired plants with are as close to instant-on as you can get. But its more expensive.)

    (* I think nuclear is cheaper, but there are other costs that make it seem more expensive.)

  23. engunneer says:

    @Athenor: Why do you doubt the plugs will be 120Volts? Since that is the standard inthe US, that is what US chargers will run on. Please give a detailed technical reason why 120VAC power cannot be used to charge the batteries in a PHEV.

  24. engunneer says:

    @LoneRider: Exotic? NiMH and Lithium polymer batteries have been around for Decades. they aren’t really exotic. There are existing recycling programs for both of these types of batteries.

  25. Buran says:

    @ptkdude: Forgotten that Enron’s lying cheating behavior is what caused most of those?

  26. Buran says:

    Plug-in hybrids not available? Wha? More accurately, no longer available. Look up the EV1.

  27. engunneer says:

    While I agree with the ones above saying that powering the cars off coal is not really better than gas, I do have to say that it would be best to get coal phased out AS WELL AS converting/making new cars to be more efficient. We have to do both, and we might as well work on this one now, since power companies are fighting to stay coal at this point.

    Also, I’m sure some political groups would be happy to have our energy dependence based on local coal instead of foreign oil, even though the coal is far more dangerous to life in the long run. We will all suffocate before we run out of coal in this country. That doesn’t mean we should use it.

  28. B says:

    @Buran: The EV1 wasn’t a hybrid, as a hybrid, by defination, has a gas engine and an electric motor. The EV1 is an electric car.

  29. Framling says:

    @QUANTUMRIFF: The key difference between a normal hybrid and a plug-in is that hybrids thus far have been engineered to try to keep the battery topped off at all times, whereas plug-ins are the other way; they don’t start running the engine until the batteries get low. This means that for everyday, to-and-from-work driving (i.e., within the batteries’ 40-mile-or-so range), most people won’t end up burning any gas.

  30. stunna18 says:

    I’m pretty sure that they are 120V and they are achieving full charges in about six hours.

  31. IC18 says:

    @B: Still the EV1 was sufficient for a lot of city drivers.

  32. LoneRider says:

    @engunneer: With the notion of providing some value to my employer, I was able to find [www.evworld.com] To the point, yup the basic chemistry is NiMH and Lithium, to increase the performance they are adding lots of things to various parts (anode, cathode, etc) of the battery. And yes I found Toyota and Honda do have recycling programs, but I would rather see lighter cars running on (none corn based) bio-fuels. Chicken fat and algae are great starts.

  33. royal72 says:

    this is old news… check out this vid or google “who killed the electric car”…

    link: [video.google.com]

  34. JHBlair800 says:

    People pushing plug-in hybrids are forgetting the most important obstacle for their implementation: The MAJORITY of power in the US comes from coal, which is both less efficient and more harmful to the environment compared to the average internal combustion engine. The only way for plug-in hybrids to work effectively is for the ENTIRE US power grid to switch to a combination of nuclear/wind/tidal/solar power and shut down the majority of the country’s coal burning plants. Otherwise you’re just trading one form of emissions for another, more harmful one, with the only difference being that the consumer doesn’t actually see the emissions being created. (sort of like feeling like you’re doing something good for the environment because you don’t have to see the emissions being created, which is a total fallacy)

  35. TVarmy says:

    @Athenor: Power plants are happiest with a constant load. When power plants have to scale between high and low loads, they are less efficient.

    And yes, electric costs will likely go up for night if everyone buys a plug in hybrid, but I don’t think it will be a big, sudden thing. Market adoption will be slow and steady, giving the power plants time to adapt, and keeping the incentive of low-cost electricity strong. Also, keep in mind that electric cars are so efficient, they can run to the tune of 100-115 miles per gallon, dollar per dollar, even on peak hours.

    Also, keep in mind that peak hours exist as an incentive to keep the load steady. You want to use less during peak times, and use the electricity instead at off peak hours. If the night grows to be too expensive, people will charge during the day, using pay-chargers at their work. Pay chargers will arrive to meet the demand, and they will likely be subsidized.

  36. TVarmy says:

    @The_Duke: The generators at the power plant are much more efficient than the combustion engine in your car. Further, the electric motors are more efficient than your car’s transmission at transferring energy. So, there is a longer tailpipe, but less emissions. But I agree 100% that nuclear is an option we should pursue. It’s just the best option at the moment, and it may be replaced by cheap solar, or nuclear fusion.

  37. TVarmy says:

    @Framling: That’s not quite it. In the Toyota Prius, and any car with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, the software tries to keep the batteries between 20% and 60% full, which ensures they will last longer. The engine doesn’t usually turn on just to charge the battery. It runs to give the car an extra boost of acceleration most of the time. The engine runs at a rate it’s most efficient at, and the car’s powertrain splits the movement up between the wheels and the car’s generator at a ratio governed by the computer. Also, regenerative breaking collects some of the energy of stopping the car. If the car’s battery is full, it simply sends this energy to resistors to lose the charge without damaging the battery. Of course, if the battery is running low, the car will turn on the gas engine to recharge, but usually it doesn’t get there unless it’s idling with the AC or heat on.

    Current Prius Plug-In mods have the same software, but between the larger batteries and the electricity from the wall, the car is more efficient. It’d be good to see it run completely on electricity before it turns on the gas, but its electric motors are not strong enough for fast acceleration, and the car’s computer locks the electric-mode speed at 34 MPH. More powerful motors would equal more weight, and thus possibly less efficiency, but they would make for a better drive.

  38. TVarmy says:

    @engunneer: Well, Americans also have a 240 volt circuit for appliances. The EV1′s home charger was hard-wired to the owner’s appliance circuit. However, most electric cars offer a portable charger, which runs on 120V and charges slower, but can easily be brought with the car and used at a friend’s house or one’s workplace.

    But this difference isn’t that important. The grid has room for 20 million more electric cars at the moment, and it will only grow as it is under more demand. Plus, part of the appeal for some is that they can run the car off of their own turbine or solar panel, making for off-grid and independent power generation. Come to think of it, that agrees with the general philosophy behind the Amish lifestyle. I’m probably wrong, but maybe they could use electric cars?

  39. Kaien says:

    It is pretty much a given it would reduce emissions, but I’m still skeptical that they would push forward the plug-ins. I still remember the EV1 death, and well there is just no incentive for the car manufacturers until the combustion engine has no fuel to run off of.
    I still think they would try to push hydrogen fuel cells on us, even if the concept is theory and likely to not happen until three decades or so.

  40. buggy_bee says:

    @Audi Rotors: hybrids and electric cars will soon be out of market.

    air car will rise.