Canada's Globe and Mail: It's time to get all those cars plugged In
- View SourceFrom Canada's leading newspaper: an interview format with 5 questions.
It's time to get all those cars plugged In
By MICHAEL VAUGHAN
Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 1, 2005 Updated at 10:46 AM EDT
The California Cars Initiative, or CalCars, is a group in Palo Alto,
Calif., that aims to build awareness of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
At various times, these vehicles have been called grid-connected hybrids,
full or strong hybrids, electric, pluggable, gridable but, in the past five
years, the most prevalent name has been plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
(PHEVs). With its partners, CalCars has been creating actual vehicles,
among them the plug-in Prius.
Felix Kramer has been working with environmentalists, engineers, car
experts and citizens since 2001 as founder of the non-profit California
Cars Initiative. In the late 1970s, he ran a non-profit energy conservation
company, became a computer consultant in 1983 and in 1985 an early desktop
A graduate of Cornell University, he lives in Silicon Valley.
Vaughan: Felix, you've monkeyed with your Toyota Prius in such a way to
turn it into a plug-in hybrid. What exactly have you done to it and why?
Kramer: We took a standard 2004 Prius and added an additional battery pack
in the tool area so it doesn't interfere with normal cargo space.
These batteries can be charged from a normal 120-volt garage outlet. And we
added a new battery control system developed by EnergyCS, an advanced
We did this to transform a hybrid that runs entirely on gasoline into a
plug-in hybrid (PHEV) that gets part of its power from a second energy
source: cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity.
CalCars's goal is to get car companies to build PHEVs. They combine the
best features of electric cars and hybrids. Recharge nightly and you'll
rarely need gas -- for instance, if your batteries have a 25-mile range and
your daily round-trip commute is 20 miles, you'll drive gasoline-free.
If you forget to plug in or you go on a long trip, you have the gasoline
engine's extended range and you're back to driving a pretty clean,
Vaughan: Well, let's look at the numbers. What does the electricity cost,
compared with going the same distance on gasoline? When would the savings
pay for the conversion?
Kramer: It's like having a second small fuel tank -- only you fill this one
with electricity at an equivalent cost of less than $1 (U.S.) a gallon.
How much under depends on your car and your electric rate. We estimate car
makers could sell mass-produced small PHEVs for $3,000 more than small
hybrids. Many early-adopter buyers will pay extra for the "environmental
feature," just as car buyers pay for more powerful engines or leather
seats, without even thinking about payback.
At the same time, gasoline prices continue to rise. And projections based
on real-world experience from utility electric-car fleets show that PHEVs
can have a lower lifetime cost of ownership than any other type of vehicle.
Vaughan: But aren't you just shifting the pollution from tailpipes to the
electrical generators, which in Ontario and most of the United States are
still heavily dependent on burning coal?
Kramer: California's, and much of Canada's, electric power is much cleaner
than the U.S. power grid.
But even on the half-coal U.S. grid, when you count everything
well-to-wheel, an electric vehicle produces at least 45 per cent less in
greenhouse gases than a gasoline car.
And Canada, as well as more and more U.S. states, is requiring that
electric power get cleaner and more renewable.
The liquid fuel can evolve from gasoline to biofuels including biodiesel
and cellulose ethanol. Using electric power as the everyday fuel makes each
That's how a plug-in hybrid that is 100 mpg (gasoline) plus electricity
becomes, for instance, a 500 mpg (gasoline) plus electricity plus ethanol
Vaughan: Let's talk about the batteries. Toyota says the nickel-metal
hydride battery systems in the Prius aren't powerful enough to make a
plug-in hybrid practical. But using more powerful batteries, like the
lithium-ion systems, creates some serious heat. Do you think about "thermal
runaway," which could mean your batteries might catch fire or blow up while
Kramer: Nickel-metal hydride batteries, proven, for many years in hybrids,
to be safe, could go into plug-in hybrids today -- they would be designed
more like the ones Toyota put in its 2002 RAV4 EV compact all-electric SUV.
The performance, durability and safety of lithium-ion batteries are
The Electric Power Research Institute says lithium-ion batteries are ready
now. DaimlerChrysler is using them in its prototype PHEV commercial vans.
And the Valence Technology li-ion batteries in the EDrive Systems
conversions include a phosphate additive that makes it nearly impossible
for them to burn or explode.
Vaughan: Felix, you're sold on these, but what about the car makers? Are
you getting any signals from hybrid builders like Toyota or Ford that they
might do a plug-in hybrid some time soon?
Kramer: We've been tracking Toyota's changing public statements, which have
evolved from dismissive skepticism to open-mindedness to a last-ditch
defence that the batteries aren't ready.
So far we see no signs that they intend to build PHEVs, but we remain hopeful.
And we think that Ford could take the technology lead and catch the
imagination of car buyers and help save their company by building much
better, cleaner, advanced technology cars.
CalCars is working with organizations concerned with national security to
make the point that these cars can reduce our dependence on imported oil.
We're spreading the word that they're a rapid way to reduce greenhouse
gases by a significant amount.
We're working with Plug-In Austin.com and other groups to create a national
fleet buy order to bring to car companies. And we're working to create
other incentives to car makers and car buyers to bring these cars into the
Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears
Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. on Report on Business Television and Saturdays at 2
p.m. on CTV.
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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