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Washington: Plug-in hybrids gaining ground but still face challenges

Jul 7, 2008 - Herman Wang - Chattanooga Times - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

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 electrical outlet.

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 -- linger today.

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 each.

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.


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 street.

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 at night.

"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.