Can plug-in hybrids ride to America’s rescue?
The engineer behind many electric-car advances says oil’s days may be numbered.
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Laboring in near anonymity in his garage-style laboratory on a leafy byway of the University of California at Davis campus, Dr. Frank has for three decades focused on developing plug-in-hybrid technology. With his students, he has built nine plug-in vehicles since the 1990s, winning several vehicle contests sponsored by the Department of Energy and automotive companies.
Even so, Detroit showed little interest in the idea of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) – until recently. With $4-a-gallon gasoline killing SUV sales, big automakers like General Motors, Ford, and Toyota have begun to talk about a future with plug-in hybrids – or even futuristic fuel-cell cars – instead of SUVs.
Plug-in hybrids go much farther on a single charge than an ordinary hybrid. Some converted Toyota Prius plug-ins get the energy equivalent of 100 miles (or more) per gallon and travel nearly 40 miles on electricity alone before a gasoline engine kicks in for longer trips. With their hefty battery packs, such hybrids can be plugged into a socket in the evening for a charge.
Since 78 percent of American commuters drive 40 miles or less each day, a plug-in driver might need only to fill up his tank with gasoline a half-dozen times a year. It’s a game-changing concept that’s won over many energy-security hawks and even environmentalists who had been married to futuristic fuel-cell vehicles, but now see plug-ins as a here-and-now way to fight global warming as well as freeing the US from imported oil.
One of the main complaints about plug-in technology is that you’re just trading one form of pollution for another – tailpipe emissions for power-plant smokestack emissions. But a recent “well to wheels” life-cycle analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that a shift by the US to plug-in vehicles would cut carbon emissions by as much as 500 million tons annually and 10 billion tons cumulatively by 2050. At the same time, other exhaust pollutants would decline.
They found that the US power grid could easily handle the load of three-quarters of Americans switching to plug-ins, which require only about 1 to 2 kilowatts – about the energy load of a dishwasher. The cost of that electricity for transportation would end up being about a 75-cents-per-gallon energy equivalent, according to the study.
“The heart of the matter is to begin to use electricity and to use it as quickly as possible to power a major share of our transportation and to break that 96-plus-percent monopoly oil has over our transportation systems,” former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey told a Washington gathering on plug-in hybrids last month.
But to Frank, the future is about far more than saving a few bucks at the pump – it’s about changing the world – or maybe saving it.