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Edmunds.com: PHEVs: Who Saved the Electric Car?

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  • Felix Kramer
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 6, 2006
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      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.

      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
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