Edmunds.com: PHEVs: Who Saved the Electric Car?
- Edmunds.com has one of the larger and more
diverse automotive websites, including a large
section on Fuel Economy
http://www.edmunds.com/fueleconomy/. The story
that follows is written by their Consumer Advice Editor.
Plug-In Hybrids: Who Saved the Electric Car?
By Philip Reed
Date Posted 11-28-2006
Wouldn't it be nice if you had your own gas pump
right in your garage? And what if gas from your
personal pump cost less than $1 a gallon?
Sound impossible? Actually, that scenario might
unfold if plug-in hybrid cars become a reality.
Even better, a plug-in hybrid could be recharged
by home roof-top photovoltaic panels so your fuel
would be completely "off the grid" (not generated by a power plant).
Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) have been in
development for years and deliver amazing
efficiency while slashing emissions. But while
lagging battery technology has kept them from
going mainstream, that could be changing very soon.
PHEVs are being embraced as the second coming of
electric cars and promoted by such unlikely
spokesmen as former CIA Director James Woolsey
and former Secretary of State George Shultz.
General Motors announced they will put a plug-in
hybrid into production, based on the Saturn Vue.
While no PHEVs are in production by automakers
yet, private research companies such as EnergyCS,
public action groups such as CalCars.org and
utility companies such as Southern California
Edison are saying PHEVs could curb global warming
and end our dependence on foreign oil.
How PHEVs work
Once the principle of the PHEV is explained, it
often provokes a "why-didn't-they-think-of-that-sooner?" response.
Essentially, a PHEV is a hybrid car with a larger
battery which can be recharged using household
electrical outlets. On short trips, a PHEV
operates like an all-electric car. If the driver
decides to take a longer trip, and electric
recharging isn't convenient, the gas engine comes
on to recharge the batteries and propel the car.
Thus, the PHEV has all the functionality of a
normal gas car and most of the advantages of an electric car.
Research on plug-in hybrids began in the 1970s by
engineering professor Dr. Andy Frank at the
University of California, Davis. Since then he
has converted a dozen cars to PHEVs. In one case,
he swapped a Ford Explorer's 3.5-liter engine for
a 1.9-liter power plant. After adding batteries
and an electric motor the fuel economy increased
and the acceleration was boosted.
The car of choice for conversion to PHEV is the
2004 and newer Toyota Prius. Interestingly, Asian
and European Priuses have an "EV" button that
allows short, low-speed trips in all-electric
mode. The Prius sold in America doesn't offer the
EV feature, but during the PHEV conversion the EV capability is restored.
Converting the Prius to PHEV
In Monrovia, California, you'll see a number of
Priuses parked outside a warehouse near downtown.
This is the home of Energy Control Systems
Engineering Inc., which converts hybrids to
plug-in hybrids. At this time, the conversion
costs more than an average consumer could afford
and the payback period in gas savings would take
a long time. Eventually, Pete Nortman, president
of EnergyCS, hopes that, "As the price of
batteries comes down and fuel prices go up you'll
see the batteries getting bigger and the EV capabilities getting stronger."
Nortman calls plug-in technology a "revolution,"
one sparked by "looking at things that you have
at your fingertips and putting them together in a
way that is innovative." Nortman, along with Greg
Hanssen, president of sister company EDrive
Systems, has converted over 10 Toyota Priuses to
PHEVs for utility companies and various city
governments who are eager to test and display interest in the technology.
"We are doing our best to get real-world data
that policy makers, OEMs [original equipment
manufacturers] and utility companies can use to
make decisions," said Nortman. "At some point, if
the technology is commercially viable, EDrive
will have a product that we can market."
"Oil is a finite resource," added Hanssen, who
was featured in Who Killed the Electric Car?
"Electricity is renewable in that we can generate it from different sources."
Test-driving the PHEV
Hanssen gave us a test ride around Monrovia in a
Prius converted to a plug-in hybrid for Manitoba
Hydro in Canada. Other clients of EnergyCS
include Pacific Gas & Electric, the Sacramento
Municipal Utility District and the Southern
California Air Quality Management District.
You can only see two differences between this
plug-in hybrid and an ordinary Prius: an
electrical socket in the rear bumper and a screen
on the left side of the dashboard. The screen
helps Hanssen know how to drive the car to take
better advantage of the electric technology. As
long as he stays below 34 mph and is easy on the
accelerator pedal, the gas engine won't come on
at all. Above that, the electric motor adds
acceleration along with the gas engine. In both
cases, the car has exactly the same acceleration as a standard Prius.
"The principle of the PHEV is to trick the car
into thinking the battery is overly full so the
engine doesn't come on," Hanssen said.
There are other differences below the skin,
however. To convert the Prius to a plug-in they
remove Toyota's battery pack, weighing 75 pounds,
and replace it with a larger battery weighing 250
pounds. "It is like adding the weight of one passenger," Hanssen comments.
"People are seeing plug-in hybrids as a viable
solution," Hanssen said as he drove through side
streets. "No new infrastructure is required, no
different driving style, the biggest obstacle is battery technology."
The car is quiet, smooth and depending on how
it's driven can cruise in all-electric mode for
about 30 miles. It gets to the point where you
actually feel cheated if the gasoline engine has to kick in.
Carmakers question PHEVs
Not everyone is PHEV-crazy. While Toyota is the
leader in hybrid technology it remains cautious
about plug-in hybrids. When the plug-in hybrid
conversions were first announced, Toyota opposed
altering its vehicles. Later, the car company
said it would study the technology with the
possibility of eventually offering it as an option.
"Toyota believes that plug-in hybrid vehicles
have potential in the mid- to long-term," a
Toyota spokesman said. "However, currently
available battery technology [nickel metal
hydride] is not capable of providing a suitable
platform for PHEVs, because it would take
inordinately large, heavy and costly battery
packs to provide meaningful range extension. We
believe that it will take some time until the
next-generation technology [most likely
lithium-ion] can perform to the levels that allow
us to provide the same level of reliability,
warranty, manufacturing and service cost."
When will PHEVs arrive?
Dr. Andy Frank said the battery technology is
"close but not yet proven" for carmaker's
requirements. The lithium-ion battery technology
"is not even five years old," he said, "so how
can they guarantee it" for longer time periods?
However, Frank suggests that automakers could
warranty the batteries for five years and 50,000
miles to start with (longer than the warranty on
some domestic cars) and then increase the
coverage as the technology becomes proven.
"New certification rules need to be created to
encourage the PHEV to be introduced as quickly as
possible since our global warming problems and
oil depletion is accelerating, and it will be too
late if we do not begin now," Frank said.
Felix Kramer, a California entrepreneur and
founder of CalCars.org, believes that automakers
could choose to put plug-in hybrids into
production in the very near future. He points to
a historic reluctance on the auto industry's part
to adopt new technology despite a pressing need
for change. "Buyers of U.S. cars could get
excited all over again about advanced technology
cars that help us become energy independent and
contribute less to global warming," he said.
Same pollution, different source?
On his Web site, Kramer debunks a commonly held
assumption about electric cars, that they move
pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant.
"Two government studies have found PHEVs would
result in large greenhouse gas reductions, even
on the national grid" of up to 50 percent over coal, he writes.
Among many other benefits, Kramer also points to
the fact that the electricity for PHEVs is
largely domestic. "The nationwide power grid is
less than 3-percent petroleum-fueled, whereas
transportation is almost completely powered by
oil 60 percent of which comes from foreign
sources [and growing]. Adoption of plug-in
hybrids will transfer the overwhelming majority
of our miles driven to nearly oil-free electricity."
Maximizing the electric power grid
Utility companies would also benefit from PHEVs.
Southern California Edison (SCE) has studied the
feasibility of electric cars and PHEVs for years.
Edward Kjaer, director of Electric Transportation
for SCE, notes that the power grid is sized to
provide peak power during hours of high demand
during the day, leaving a significant capacity
unused at night. Recharging electric vehicles at
night could help balance the load on the electrical grid.
"There are 20,000 megawatts available from 9 p.m.
to noon," Kjaer said, which could easily be
recharging 12 to 15 million plug-in hybrids.
"This represents an energy security asset that is
domestic based. As more and more transportation
is electrified, what we ought to be doing is
driving it to that off-peak asset."
Kjaer said that SCE's fleet of over 300 electric
vehicles has traveled more than 12.5 million
miles and hasn't experienced any major problems with the batteries.
He predicts that PHEVs will become available in
the near future since there are currently three
automakers aggressively working on their
development. "Will it happen tomorrow? No," he
said. But "politically we are beginning to get
it, that we need to get off oil. It might take
100 years to get off oil, but we have to start today."
(Photos by Philip Reed)
-Pete Nortman (left), president of EnergyCS,
poses with a Toyota Prius converted into a
plug-in hybrid. Greg Hanssen (kneeling right),
president of sister company EDrive Systems, and
Richard Nortman (standing right).
-A plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius converted by
EnergyCS gets up to 100 mpg by driving most of the time in all-electric mode.
-A control screen to the left of the steering
wheel helps the driver operate the plug-in hybrid for maximum efficiency.
-In a plug-in hybrid the factory-installed
battery pack is removed, replaced by a larger, more powerful one.
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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