Washington: Plug-in hybrids gaining ground
but still face challenges
Jul 7, 2008 - Herman Wang - Chattanooga Times - McClatchy-Tribune
Tenn. - Within five years, Sen. Lamar Alexander
predicts, tens of thousands of Tennesseans will be driving
plug-in hybrid cars, part of a nationwide wave that could
cut the country's oil imports by a third.
The Tennessee Republican's vision would mean the return
of revolutionary electric car technology pioneered 20 years
ago and then abandoned.
"Electric cars were tried 20 years ago, and they flopped,"
Sen. Alexander said. "Times are different. Gas is $4 (a
gallon). Climate change is a concern. The companies didn't
really try 20 years ago, I don't think."
Plug-in hybrids are cars similar to hybrid electric vehicles,
such as the Prius, except with a larger lithium-ion battery
that can be recharged by plugging into a standard household
Researchers estimate these vehicles could get more than
100 miles per gallon of gasoline, with their combination
of battery-powered motors and gas-powered engines, at a
charging cost equivalent to about $1 a gallon.
As Congress wrestles over soaring energy prices and global
warming, lawmakers from both parties, including Republican
presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate
Barack Obama, have seized onto plug-in hybrids as a way
to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil while
cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the problems that doomed the first plug-in hybrids
-- failure to develop breakthroughs in battery technology
that would make them more durable and less expensive --
Don Hillebrand, director of the Center for Transportation
Research at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, said
with current technology, batteries capable of powering a
car for about 30 miles would take up huge amounts of space
in the vehicle, in addition to costing $10,000 to $15,000
Even if significant battery improvements are developed,
Mr. Hillebrand said production of plug-in hybrids will be
constrained for a few years because there are no major battery
manufacturing facilities in the country.
"The car companies are not going to want to spend the money
to build a battery plant until they are sure there's going
to be a market for these vehicles," said Mr. Hillebrand,
whose center has been tapped by the U.S. Department of Energy
to evaluate the scientific viability of plug-in hybrids.
Richard Smith, program manager of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's
Transportation Program Office, said auto manufacturers have
told him that for plug-in hybrids to be commercially viable,
they would need to constitute 5 percent to 10 percent of
new vehicle sales, which could take years.
By comparison, Toyota Prius sales still are hovering at
about 3 percent of new vehicle sales, he said.
Still, Mr. Smith, whose office is researching ways to
increase motor efficiency in plug-in hybrids, said the promise
of the technology should not be underestimated.
"The plug-in hybrid has the potential to even penetrate
markets faster than the Prius because of its advantages
in fuel savings and emissions reduction," he said.
Toyota and General Motors have said that by 2010, they
will offer plug-in hybrids for sale, at least on a limited
scale at first.
Sen. Alexander made plug-in hybrids a central part of his
recently announced "Manhattan Project" energy plan, which
seeks to make the country more energy independent and secure.
A group of Republican senators, including Sen. Alexander,
recently proposed legislation to help further plug-in hybrids
by providing more funding for battery development, incentives
for consumers to switch to smart meters and encouraging
the federal government to purchase 10,000 to 20,000 of the
vehicles each year.
"That helps create a market," Sen. Alexander said. "The
federal government can support all those steps."
Environmentalists also support development of plug-in hybrids.
Luke Tonachel, a vehicles analyst with the National Resources
Defense Council, said a study commissioned by the environmental
group estimated that the widespread adoption of plug-in
hybrids would result in the reduction of greenhouse gas
emissions equivalent to one-third of vehicles and light
trucks on the road today.
"Plug-in hybrids improve the efficiency of vehicles, and
that's the fastest and cheapest way to reducing our oil
consumption," Mr. Tonachel said.
OTHER CHALLENGES REMAIN
However, plug-in hybrids likely will not be adopted universally.
Because of their need for an electrical outlet to recharge,
the vehicles are not good choices for urban dwellers, who
may not have garages and have to park their cars on the
Plug-in hybrids also do not make sense for people who have
to drive long distances on a regular basis because the battery
will be tapped out after about 30 miles, at least until
the batteries are made to last longer.
Given those limitations, Mr. Hillebrand estimates that
the potential market for plug-in hybrids would be about
30 percent of car owners.
Sen. Alexander said with many electric utilities generating
large quantities of unused electricity at night, when demand
is lower, electric cars, if plugged in during those off-peak
hours, could fill up their batteries for a few dollars,
instead of $50 a tank or more for gasoline.
He said Tennessee would be a strong market for the vehicles,
given the state's large suburban areas and the Tennessee
Valley Authority's capacity to handle recharging the cars
"TVA has the equivalent of seven or eight nuclear power
plants of unused electricity every night that could be sold
to customers if there was demand for it," he said.
TVA spokesman John Moulton said the utility is trying "time-of-use
rates" in some areas, where customers are charged more for
electricity used during peak times in the afternoon and
less for electricity used at night. The electricity usage
would be measured by special "smart meters."
"The consumer would save by plugging the vehicles in during
the night, and if and when we have time-of-use rates in
effect, the consumer would get a break on his power bill,"
Mr. Moulton said.