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Canada's Globe and Mail: It's time to get all those cars plugged In

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  • Felix Kramer
    From Canada s leading newspaper: an interview format with 5 questions.
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2005
      From Canada's leading newspaper: an interview format with 5 questions.


      It's time to get all those cars plugged In
      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
      technology firm.

      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,
      efficient hybrid.

      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
      transition easier.

      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
      you're driving?

      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
      improving rapidly.

      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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