EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Turning to Renewable Energy: Wind-Powered Plug-In Hybrid Cars

In Chapter 10 we discussed measures that cities are using to reduce the need for cars. But even with fewer cars, the world desperately needs a new automotive energy economy, a new source of fuel. Fortunately, the foundation for this has been laid with two new technologies: the gas-electric hybrid cars pioneered by Toyota and advanced-design wind turbines.

The Toyota Prius—a fast-selling mid-size hybrid car—gets an impressive 46 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving, compared with 20 miles per gallon for the average new U.S. passenger vehicle. The United States could easily cut its gasoline use in half simply by converting the U.S. automobile fleet to highly efficient hybrid cars. No change in the number of vehicles. No change in the miles driven. Just doing it with the most efficient propulsion technology on the market. 27

Now that hybrid cars are well established, it is a relatively small step to manufacturing plug-in hybrids that run largely on electricity. By putting a larger battery in a gas-electric hybrid to increase its storage of electricity and adding a plug-in capacity so the battery can be recharged from the power grid, drivers can do their commuting, grocery shopping, and other short-distance travel almost entirely with electricity, saving gasoline for the occasional long trip. Even more exciting, recharging batteries with off-peak wind-generated electricity would cost the equivalent of less than $1 per gallon of gasoline. This modification of hybrids to run largely on electricity could reduce remaining gasoline use an additional 60 percent, for a total reduction of 80 percent. 28

But this is not all. Amory Lovins—an energy efficiency pioneer—notes that substituting advanced polymer composites for steel in auto bodies can “roughly double the efficiency of a normal-weight hybrid without materially raising its total manufacturing cost.” Thus, building gas-electric hybrids using the new advanced polymer composites, which are being introduced by Boeing in its new 787 Dreamliner jumbo jet, can cut the remaining 20 percent of fuel use by another half, for a total reduction of 90 percent. 29

The plug-in electric hybrid/wind power transportation model does not require a costly new infrastructure, since the network of gasoline service stations and the electricity grid are already in place. A 2006 study by the U.S. government’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimated that 84 percent of the electricity used by a national fleet of plug-in cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs could be satisfied with the existing electrical infrastructure since the recharging would take place largely at night, when there is an excess of generating capacity. 30

The variability of wind energy is of concern to many commentators, but it can be largely offset by integrating local and regional grids into a strong national grid, something that is needed anyhow to raise load-management efficiency. Since no two wind farms have identical wind flows, each wind farm added to a large grid reduces variability. With many wind farms on a large grid, variability largely disappears. 31

Another major source of stability will come from the shift to plug-in hybrids, since the vehicle batteries become a storage system for wind energy. With a smart grid, motorists could profitably sell electricity back to the grid when needed during peak demand. In effect, the shift to plug-in hybrids, with their electricity storage capacity and backup tank of gasoline, buffers the variability of wind energy, enabling it to become the centerpiece of the Plan B energy economy. 32

The shift to fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid cars combined with the construction of thousands of wind farms across the United States will rejuvenate farm and ranch communities and dramatically shrink the U.S. balance-of-trade deficit. Even more important, it could cut automobile CO2 emissions by some 90 percent, making the United States a model for other countries. 33

The fast-growing support for plug-in hybrids has coalesced into a national grassroots initiative called Plug-In Partners. As of late 2007, Plug-In Partners had 617 members, including 169 electrical utilities, 168 corporations, 71 city governments, and 67 environmental groups. A number of the Plug-In Partners have announced advanced orders for plug-in cars and delivery vans, including the government of New York State, Southern California Edison, and Pacific Gas and Electric. These so-called soft orders, now totaling more than 11,000 vehicles, will go to the first company that makes it to the market with a plug-in hybrid. 34

Among the companies planning to manufacture these vehicles are Nissan, Toyota, General Motors (GM, with its Chevrolet Volt), and Ford Motor Company (with the Airstream). Chrysler’s Dodge Sprinter plug-in hybrid vans are already being tested by various firms, including Pacific Gas and Electric. The first companies to market plug-in hybrids may find it difficult to keep up with the demand. 35

The Chevrolet Volt, which will be on the market in 2010, will have a 40-mile range on electricity only. Beyond this distance, a small gasoline engine will generate electricity to recharge the battery. For the 78 percent of Americans who live 20 miles or less from their work site, it will be possible to commute without using any gasoline. For those with longer commutes, plugging in at the worksite is also an option. Based on an analysis of U.S. driving patterns, GM estimates that the Volt will get 150 miles per gallon, since the gas-powered recharger engine would come into play only occasionally. It is this prospect of triple-digit gasoline mileage that is selling consumers on plug-in hybrids. 36

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27. Prius mileage based on new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates at www.fueleconomy.gov, viewed 23 August 2007; fleet average from Robert M. Heavenrich, Light Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2007 (Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Transportation and Air Quality, September 2007).

28. Fuel savings are author’s estimates updated from Lester R. Brown, “The Short Path to Oil Independence,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 13 October 2004); Lionel Laurent, “Boeing’s Dreamliner, Airbus’s Nightmare,” Forbes, 9 July 2007; cost of electricity equivalent to a gallon of gas from Roger Duncan, “Plug-In Hybrids: Pollution-Free Transport on the Horizon,” Solar Today, May/June 2007, p. 46.

29. Amory B. Lovins et al., Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs, and Security (Snowmass, CO: Rocky Mountain Institute, 2004), p. 64.

30. Michael Kintner-Meyer et al., Impacts Assessment of Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles on Electric Utilities and Regional U.S. Power Grids —Part 1: Technical Analysis (Richland, WA: DOE, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 2006).

31. Randy Swisher, AWEA, e-mail to author, 16 October 2007.

32. Joseph Romm and Peter Fox-Penner, Plugging into the Grid: How Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles Can Help Break America’s Oil Addiction and Slow Global Warming (Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute, 2007); Roger Duncan, “Plug-In Hybrids: Pollution-Free Transport on the Horizon,” Solar Today, May/June 2007, p. 47.

33. Martin Crutsinger, “ U.S. Trade Deficit a Record 6.5% of Economy,” Associated Press, 15 March 2007.

34. Lisa Braithwaite, Plug-In Partners National Campaign, e-mail to Jonathan Dorn, Earth Policy Institute, 19 October 2007.

35. Ben Hewitt, “Plug-in Hybrid Electric Cars: How They’ll Solve the Fuel Crunch,” Popular Mechanics, May 2007; Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Greening Fleets with New Technologies, at www.pge.com/about_us/environment, viewed 20 October 2007.

36. General Motors (GM), “Fuel Solutions,” at www.chevrolet.com/electriccar, viewed 23 October 2007; percent of Americans who live within 20 miles of their workplace from Plug-In Partners National Campaign, Building a Market for Gas-Optional Flexible-Fuel Hybrids, brochure (Austin, TX: 2007).


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