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by Sherry Boschert

Last summer, Google.org (the philanthropic arm of the Internet giant) launched a plug-in hybrid car project and Web site called RechargeIT.org, proclaiming, "Recharge your car. Recharge the grid. Recharge the planet." It could just as well have added, "Recharge your home."

Plug-in cars, some that rely solely on electricity and some that marry an electric motor with a gasoline motor for better mileage and fewer emissions (plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles or PHEVs), are slowly making their way into the mainstream.

And it's not just because they replace most or all of the gasoline used to fuel the typical car with cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity. The ability of electricity to flow into a car's batteries and also to be pulled back out and returned to the electrical grid has caught the imagination of consumers and environmentalists alike. That return trip—commonly called vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology—could power some of a home's electrical appliances during a grid outage, or could be used by the electrical grid in ways that will increase the storage of and our access to clean, renewable energy.

An Electric Evolution

The story of plug-in hybrids has been unfolding within the past two decades or so, beginning with the battle over modern all-electric vehicles (EVs). General Motors unveiled an electric car in 1990, inspiring California's clean-air regulators to demand that all the major car companies start producing zero-emission vehicles. Thousands of leased electric cars hit the roads, but a weakening of the clean-air mandate in 2003 allowed automakers to cancel the leases and destroy the cars, as documented in the 2006 film, Who Killed the Electric Car?

EVs are powered solely by an electric motor and a large bank of batteries—not by a gasoline engine. When the driver steps on the accelerator pedal, a controller sends electricity from the batteries to the motor, making the vehicle move. Regenerative braking systems use the electric motor to convert some of the car's kinetic energy into electricity that gets fed back into the batteries as the vehicle slows down.

The plug is the best thing—and the worst thing—about EVs: On one hand, you get to plug them in (which is generally a cheaper and lower-emissions source of energy than gasoline), and on the other hand you have to plug them in to recharge their batteries after 30 to 200 miles of driving, depending on the car, driving conditions, and the battery type and size.

While the car companies were making EVs, they also began building hybrid gas-electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius,

Opposite: General Motors' concept plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt.

Honda Civic, and the Ford Escape. Hybrids are gasoline-dependent vehicles with internal combustion engines that also have an electric motor and a small bank of batteries. The electric-drive components work with the engine, providing boosts of power or increasing the overall fuel efficiency of the vehicle. The most popular hybrid, the Toyota Prius, typically gets 45 to 55 miles per gallon.

Hybrids on the market today aren't designed to be plugged in. Instead they use the gas engine and, to a much lesser degree, the drive motor via regenerative braking, to recharge the batteries. Depending on a hybrid's design, the gasoline engine may shut down when the electric motor can meet propulsion needs—saving energy and reducing emissions—and automatically restarts when more power is demanded. The fuel efficiency of hybrids depends on whether they are "full" hybrids that include all the hybrid features, or "hollow" hybrids that claim the name but incorporate minimal features, such as stopping the engine while idling but not using regenerative braking. Hollow hybrids may add merely 1 mpg in efficiency, and are often more about increased power than increased fuel efficiency.

Plug-In Promises

People are realizing that hybrids can be improved by adding more batteries and an AC charger that can be plugged into the grid. With overnight grid charging, a plug-in hybrid like the Prius can travel 100 miles on 1 gallon of gasoline and about 33 kilowatt-hours (KWH) of electricity. And PHEV drivers still don't need to think about finding someplace to recharge the car if they want to drive long distances. If the owner forgets to plug in overnight, it's no big deal—a plug-in hybrid then operates just like a conventional hybrid.

Plug-In Pioneers

A few dozen Prius owners, eager for the benefits that plugin hybrids offer and tired of waiting for auto manufacturers to produce them, have converted their hybrids into PHEVs, even though the modifications may void parts of the cars' warranties. Felix Kramer of Redwood City, California, did it.

50 did Ryan Fulcher of Seattle, Todd Dore of Chicago, and Ron Gremban of Corte Madera, California, among others. Google's RechargeIT.org site shows a map of vehicles that have been converted to PHEVs, and they are popping up all over the country.

These plug-in pioneers modified their cars for more than their own benefit. They did it to make a point: If they could make a plug-in hybrid, the major car companies could too—and should.

Kramer, Gremban, and a cadre of volunteers formed the California Cars Initiative (CalCars.org) and in 2004 converted G rem ban's Prius to a plug-in hybrid, doing the work in his garage. They added inexpensive lead batteries and some innovative software fool the car's computerized controls into using more of the energy stored in the batteries instead of using the engine, dramatically increasing fuel efficiency. Several small companies like EnergyCS in Southern California and Hymotion in Canada have started doing small numbers of conversions for fleets and government agencies, using longer-lasting, more energy-dense lithium-ion batteries.

Kramer hired EnergyCS to convert his Prius as a test case, and has reported on a typical day traveling

51 miles, mostly on the highway. At fuel efficiencies of

1 gallon of gasoline and 15.3 KWH of electricity expended to travel 124 miles (the equivalent of about two to four cents per mile for electricity, depending on local retail rates), his plug-in hybrid used 61% less gasoline and cut the vehicle's greenhouse emissions in half. The total fuel cost? $1.76 instead of the $3.17 the car would have required on gasoline alone.

CalCars.org and the national Electric Auto Association have created an open-source "Wiki" Web site with instructions for do-it-yourselfers who want to convert their own hybrids to plug-ins. They hope to put together a video and eventually sell a package of components for individuals wanting to convert their hybrids. (See www.eaa-phev.org.)

CalCars founder Felix Kramer's Prius, converted by EnergyCS, was one of the first consumer-owned PHEVs to hit the road.

Improved Efficiency. At an average fuel efficiency of 20 mpg, a conventional gasoline car needs 5 gallons of gas to travel 100 miles. The Toyota Prius hybrid needs about 2 gallons to go that distance. In comparison, Toyota's RAV4-EV all-electric SUV goes 30% farther—about 130 miles—on the energy equivalent of just 1 gallon of gasoline (34 KWH). That's half the energy required by a conventional Prius hybrid and one-fifth of the energy required by a standard gas-engine car. So how do PHEVs pencil out?

Using the average price for residential off-peak electricity in the United States—about 8 cents per KWH—the equivalent of 1 gallon of gasoline in energy (34 KWH) costs $2.72. Assuming that amount of electric energy can move a car at least 110 miles, driving on electricity costs about 2 cents per mile. In comparison, for a conventional hybrid that gets 50 mpg on gasoline costing $3 per gallon, each mile in a hybrid costs 6 cents—more than double the cost of fueling with electricity.

Terry Penney, manager of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL) FreedomCAR program, compared the costs associated with electricity rates and gasoline prices for a plug-in hybrid with enough batteries for a mere 10-mile all-electric range. He found that in 45 out of 50 states (all but the few states with the highest electricity rates), driving a plugin hybrid would put money in the driver's pocket: The fuel savings would more than offset a plug-in hybrid's slightly higher projected sales price.

Cash-Back Cars. With vehicle-to-grid technology, a plugin hybrid can become a "cash-back hybrid," a term coined by Jon Wellinghoff, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member. According to Wellinghoff, some electrical utilities and power aggregation companies have already expressed interest in the idea of contracting with plug-in hybrid owners to get occasional access to the electricity stored in their vehicles' batteries. V2G on plug-in hybrids is likely to be used

Larry Brilliant, Google.org executive director, recharges the RechargeIT car.

to supply electricity for what's called "spinning reserves," for times when it is difficult for the utilities to meet the instantaneous demand of the grid. They could also be used to shave peak loads by some individual V2G utility customers. That, says Wellinghoff, would make dollars and sense for a plug-in hybrid owner, especially if the owner also had a V2G contract. Wellinghoff says that, in the future, plug-in hybrid owners could conceivably make profits of $400 for spinning reserve V2G contracts and $2,700 per year for regulation contracts. The owner's contract would specify how much energy may be drawn from the car's batteries. For example, they could specify that their vehicle must retain at least 50% of its battery charge.

Reduced Pollution. While electric utilities are waking up to the possibilities of plug-in hybrids, some environmentalists are concerned about an increase in power plant pollution if everyone starts plugging in their cars. Most electricity in the United States is still generated by fossil-fueled (read: polluting) power plants and adding cars to the grid's loads would increase electricity demands.

The data on plug-in hybrids, however, has calmed most environmentalists' fears. Even plugged into the U.S. electrical grid, which gets more than half of its energy from coal, plugin hybrids would produce 42% less carbon dioxide, and reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases and pollutants when compared to conventional fossil-fueled cars, according to NREL.

As more wind and solar generation is added to the grid mix, driving with grid electricity becomes cleaner still. Plugin cars are synergistic with renewable energy, and V2G expands that synergy. For example, in many locations the wind blows mostly at night, when few people are awake to make use of wind energy. In fact, it's estimated that there's more than enough of an untapped wind resource in the United States to meet all current U.S. electrical needs, but there's no place to store that wind energy during times of off-peak demand. However, nighttime is when people usually plug in to recharge their EV batteries, and the batteries could serve as distributed storage for that additional wind energy. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that plug-in electric vehicles with V2G technology could increase America's access to wind energy by a factor of three. And owners of off-grid RE-powered homes, which store renewable energy in batteries, could be driving cars that run partially on their surplus homemade renewable electricity and use the vehicle battery as further reserve capacity.

A Japanese Web site created in 2005 prominently showcases another important possibility of plug-in hybrid vehicles—providing a source of emergency backup electricity

Better Batteries?

Although car companies say they're waiting for better battery technology before they mass-market plug-in hybrids, that doesn't sit well with drivers like Marc Geller of San Francisco, a PV systems salesman who co-founded the nonprofit group Plug In America. The nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries in Geller's all-electric 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV give the compact SUV plenty of power, take him all over the Bay Area, and are expected to last the life of the car, based on utility company fleet tests.

Long before unveiling its "new" plug-in hybrid Volt, GM displayed a prototype plug-in hybrid version of its EV1 electric car at auto shows in the 1990s. The EV1 plug-in hybrid could go 25 miles on electricity stored in NiMH batteries before the gasoline engine turned on, which would then extend the range to 320 miles. Professor Andrew Frank at the University of California at Davis collaborated with the NiMH battery company Energy Conversion Devices in 1998 to convert an early Toyota Prius to a plug-in hybrid, with similar results. Toyota will be testing their plug-in Prius in Japan, and will be delivering one each to UC-Berkeley and UC-Irvine. The cars are expected to have only a 7- to 8-mile range on their NiMH batteries, but if the cars move into production, more advanced batteries are likely to be used.

People who have been driving electric cars for years using NiMH batteries suggest that the car companies are stalling by insisting on Li-ion batteries. The major auto manufacturers say that Li-ion batteries are preferable because they store more energy in less space, so fewer batteries are needed and less weight is added to the vehicle. It's unclear, however, whether Li-ion batteries will last as long as expected in conventional warranties. California state regulators are considering modifying warranty requirements for hybrids, which could jumpstart production of plug-in cars with Li-ion batteries. Or, as GM's CEO Robert Lutz acknowledged in a recent interview on PodTech.net, if Li-ion doesn't work out, "we might use NiMH for plug-in hybrids after all."

for a home during blackouts. It showed the plug-in Prius as an integral part of the "Toyota Dream House PAPI"— one example of environmentally friendly, energy saving, intelligent home design. The project suggested that if a hurricane or other disaster knocks out the electric grid, the car could supply electricity for some of a home's critical electrical loads for up to 36 hours.

Pulling for Plug-Ins

Unfortunately, while the merits of plug-ins have been pimped by the popular press and garnered the favor of an impressive aggregation of advocates, ranging from G. W. Bush to the activist environmental organization Rainforest Action Network, plug-in hybrids have yet to hit the mainstream market.

Lithium-ion battery pack in CalCars' EnergyCS/EDrive converted Prius.

To convince automakers that there is a market for these cars, the City of Austin, Texas, launched a Plug-in Partners campaign and has gathered more than 8,000 advance "soft" (no financial commitment) orders for plug-in hybrids. Austin's green energy comes from west Texas wind, and the city would like to use more of it. With plug-in hybrids, Austin aims to "replace Middle East oil with west Texas wind," according to the campaign motto.

And another famous Texan is helping drive the plugin revolution: The day after his State of the Union speech in January 2007, President Bush issued an executive order saying that when plug-in hybrids become available, federal fleets with 20 or more vehicles must buy them. With the stroke of a pen, he signified his administration's support for these cars.

Are automakers listening? Maybe.

Several automakers developed plug-in hybrid prototypes in the 1990s, but cast them aside during their battle to weaken California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. Stung by bad publicity from Who Killed the Electric Car?, at least one automaker has started to reverse its course. At the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors showcased its prototype plug-in hybrid—aptly named the Volt. With electricity stored in a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack, this car purportedly can deliver 40 miles before the flex-fuel (gasoline, E85, petrodiesel, or biodiesel) engine turns on to recharge the batteries and extend the car's range to 640 miles.

In the past year, at least five other major car companies have said they're developing plug-in vehicles. But the automakers are quick to say that plug-in hybrids won't hit the market until more research is done on advanced Li-ion batteries (see Better Batteries sidebar).

Move for the Future

The same day that Google switched on a 1.6-megawatt solar-electric array at its California headquarters—the largest PV installation on a corporate campus in North America— Google.org made another strong move toward energy independence, launching RechargeIT.org. They unveiled five plug-in hybrid conversions and plans to build a fleet of up to 100 plug-in hybrids for employee use. The company also awarded a $150,000 grant for a large-scale V2G planning and implementation research project, and is set to take proposals for $10 million in funding for companies focused on plugin hybrids, electric vehicles, batteries, and V2G technology, demonstrating that where there's a will (and some substantial financial backing), there's a way.

In the meantime, plug-ins might not be hitting the showroom floor soon, but you can still support the push for these resource-efficient vehicles. Here's how:

• Support plug-in hybrids by joining Austin's Plug-in Partners campaign, and by using collective buying power as leverage. Plug In America lists the phone numbers of the major automakers on its Web site and urges consumers to call them. "Tell the automakers that you won't buy a new car unless it has a plug on it," says EV driver and Plug In America cofounder Marc Geller.

• Push for government incentives or interventions to help plug-in hybrids get to market. Plug In America and other advocates have been lobbying the California Air Resources Board—which this year is revising its weakened Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate—to put some teeth back into clean-car regulations.

• Do it yourself. If you have some experience in high-voltage electronics, you can convert a conventional hybrid to a plugin hybrid. Costs vary widely depending on components and the type and number of batteries. And there's no standard conversion kit available yet, so be prepared to do lots of research first. (See Plug-In Pioneers sidebar.)


Sherry Boschert ([email protected]) is the author of Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America (New Society Publishers) and is on the steering committee of Plug In America.

California Cars Initiative • www.CalCars.org

Do-it-yourself plug-in hybrid conversions • www.eaa-phev.org

Electric Auto Association • www.eaaev.org

Plug In America • www.PlugInAmerica.com

Plug-in Partners • www.PlugInPartners.org

RechargeIT.org • Google.org's initiative to reduce CO2 emissions, cut oil use & stabilize the electrical grid by accelerating the adoption of PHEVs

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Hybrid Cars The Whole Truth Revealed

Hybrid Cars The Whole Truth Revealed

Hybrid Cars! Man! Is that a HOT topic right now! There are some good reasons why hybrids are so hot. If you’ve pulled your present car or SUV or truck up next to a gas pumpand inserted the nozzle, you know exactly what I mean! I written this book to give you some basic information on some things<br />you may have been wondering about.

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