I recently attended a talk by Sherry Boschert, the author of "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America". Sherry got into plug-in hybrid when she put in solar panel on her home in foggy San Francisco. Once one gets free electricity from the sun, the logical next step, obviously, is to figure out what else could be plugged in. Today, she has been driving an all-electric Toyota RAV4 for 5 years now, and hasn’t been to a gas station in 5 years. Some people has racked up over 100K miles on the RAV4 and the battery is still doing well. I am sure you are wondering, by now, whether it makes sense to drive an electric car if you don't have solar panels.
But first, let's look at the two flavors of electric vehicles – partial and full electric vehicles. Both depend on batteries to store electricity that is generated by several possible means. An example of a partial electric vehicle is today's hybrid, which runs on gasoline, and produces electricity through regenerative braking. A plug-in vehicle (PHEV) is a step-up. Some of today’s hybrid can been converted by a third party to be plugged into regular electric outlet, further reducing its dependency on oil. They work on regular 110V outlets, although the 220V outlets for washer/dryer will recharge the car faster. Compared to regular hybrids, a PHEV needs more batteries, and is an intermediate step until full battery-electric vehicles (BEV) become commonly available.
According to a 2007 National Resource Defence Council (NRDC) and Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) study, PHEV reduces GHG between 7-46% compared with hybrids, in the study timeframe of 2010-2050. This will happen even in heavy coal state such as Idaho and Ohio. Plug-in electric vehicles is probably the quickest way to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emission, right now. It is something we can do today to make significant progress on the problem of global warming.
Experts present the following arguments on why electric cars are better than gasoline, better than fuel cells. The gist is that they are cheaper, cleaner, and use domestic power sources. Unlike fuel-cell vehicles, which require an infrastructure for refueling stations (since they use compressed hydrogen as fuel), the infrastructure for powering plug-in electric cars already exists. It is our national grid! Assuming the average American grid, which is still 50% coal and hence polluting, the wells-to-wheel emission for electricity is still lower than that of regular gasoline. Wells-to-wheel measure refers to the total pollutants produced by vehicles and by their power sources. This is an inclusive measure of carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emission. In addition, in case you are wondering how the US grid can support all our automobiles, the US Department of Environment has just released a study this year assessing the impact of PHEV on electric utilities and regional US power grids. The study says that existing off-peak grid capacity can already fuel daily commutes for 73% of all US cars, trucks, SUVs and vans as PHEV.
A tricky problem we face with automobile emission reduction is that we have millions and millions of individual emission points. Each of these pollution sources (i.e. each of our cars) will have to be cleaner to make a dent on the climate change issue. This is a mass coordination effort, which could be multiplied if car technology were to gradually shift into cleaner and cleaner technology. However, if PHEV or BEV were available today, then we only need to change our cars once to be cleaner. If all cars run on electricity, then the emission problem is shifted from millions of tailpipes to hundreds of power plants. Greening fewer enormous pollution sources is a lot easier than greening hundreds of millions of cars all over the world. Since even with today's power plant mix, we will already emit less if everyone shifts to electric cars, we are starting from a cleaner picture, with improvement opportunity as power plants use more renewable energy sources.
However, the sad news is, neither PHEV nor BEV is currently available to mass consumers (unless you can afford the 100K Tesla). The major automobile makers are focusing on FCEV, which uses hydrogen fuel cells for electricity, instead of the plug. According to the Plug-In Partners America website, an advocacy group for PHEV, “just a few short years ago each of the major automakers were building all-electric cars, trucks, or vans in order to meet the Zero Emissions Mandate for the California Air Resource Board. Today, none of these same companies are building all-electric vehicles. Today, no major Automaker is selling plug-in hybrids. So where can people get plug-ins?”
If you are interested in taking action to encourage automobile makers to sell PHEV, check out the Plug-in Partners National PHEV Initiative website. It is “a national grass-roots initiative to demonstrate to automakers that a market for flexible-fuel Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) exists today”. As a consumer, you can sign the Plug-in Petition. In addition, if your workplace has a fleet of vehicle, Plug-in Partners is garnering “soft” fleet order of PHEV, with no financial commitment, to demonstrate that market demand exists. You can also ask the California Air Resource Board (CARB) to do everything possible to get plug-in cars on the road (link here). CARB is reviewing the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate this year.
Personally, like Sherry, I now have solar panels on my roof, and am keenly looking into a plug-in or full battery electric car. Since the major automobile makers do not have any offering in the market, I will have to look at the second-hand market (e.g. Toyota RAV4), alternative neighborhood electric car manufacturers, or buy a hybrid and find a conversion partner. It is a hassle to shop for and involves way too much research. However, it is worth the effort since I have to do my part to fight climate change. I will keep you posted on my adventure shopping for one, and also what I learn about the possibility of obtaining such a car as a consumer, TODAY.
(Source: 2001 U.S. DOE Argonne National Lab, 2007 NRDC/EPRI. Both studies use the sophisticated Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) system for analysis. Details here.)