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Electric & Hybrid Cars: New Load, or New Resource?

The industry must join a growing chorus in calling for new technology.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2006

The prospect of millions of vehicles plugging into the nation’s electric grid in the coming decades never has been better. In 2005, hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) reached 1.2 percent of new cars sold in the United States, more than doubling the number sold in the prior year. Vehicle manufacturers, betting on this trend accelerating in the coming years, are rushing to bring HEVs to their dealers’ showrooms.

The evolution of HEVs to allow charging from the electric grid—so called plug-in hybrids (PHEV)—is assumed by many to be desirable, even inevitable. Indeed, a growing movement to bring PHEVs to market has emerged, bolstered by the undeniable economic and national-security benefits that result from displacing gasoline with electricity.

One highly visible grassroots campaign called Plug-In Partners seeks to demonstrate to the major automobile manufacturers that a national market exists for flexible-fuel PHEVs; dozens of businesses, utilities, municipal governments, and environmental groups have joined the Plug-In Partners campaign.

While there are no commercially available PHEVs on the market, a number of prototypes have been built and tested. The most established PHEV program is housed at the University of California Davis, where Professor Andrew Frank works with students designing and building prototype PHEVs. A second development project involves collaboration between the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and DaimlerChrysler. They produced, and are in the process of testing, several prototype plug-in hybrid vans using the Sprinter platform. (Editor’s Note: Tesla Motors recently introduced an all-electric vehicle. See sidebar, “Tesla: Redefining the Electric Car.”)

Two startup firms plan to offer conversion kits for current generation hybrid electric vehicles to allow grid charging of the on-board battery pack. These conversions kits offer the potential to almost double an HEV’s fuel efficiency rating to 100+ miles per gallon by increasing the size of the battery storage system and installing the hardware and controls to allow charging from the electric grid.

There is some indication that at least one major auto manufacturer is developing next generation PHEV technology. This summer, Jim Press, president of Toyota’s North American subsidiary, announced that the company was looking at developing a plug-in hybrid that travels greater distance without gasoline than their current hybrid models. Toyota is the leading manufacturer of HEVs, selling over 50 percent of all hybrids purchased in the US in 2005.

The authors believe that the commercial success of PHEVs will hinge on an aggressive development and marketing effort by a major auto maker. Support from the electric-power industry could provide further impetus for a major automobile manufacturer, such as Toyota, to pursue PHEV technology.

The potential that PHEVs offer to lower fuel costs, reduce petroleum consumption, and decrease harmful emissions is described elsewhere. 1