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March 05, 2008

Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles – Readers Add to the Discussion

Lots of good comments from readers that deserve prominence and more discussion.

First from Craig Plunkett:

“PHEV's do exist for the truck market. There is a small company on Long Island producing them. Bucket Trucks and Garbage Trucks are great targets for this technology. The CTO of Odyne at the time came to talk about them to a business group I belong to…”

In his own post about this presentation, Craig points out that PHEV garbage trucks are much quieter than their conventional equivalents. Not only is there not engine roar but the regenerating braking systems don’t make as much noise as truck brakes. I would think that there would also be a market for “pure” electrics in trucks that are heavy anyway (so batteries may not be as much of a problem) and have a predictably short route.

kent beuchert does some useful calculations:

“Actually, if you do the simple math using the DOT's graph of the distribution of commuting trips in the US, you'll find that a 40 mile ranged plug-in like the Volt would achieve 295 MPG in commuting, even without any workplace recharging occurring. This would avoid 93% of gasoline used for commuting. With 1/4 of commuters recharging at work, the fleet's MPG would jump to 397 MPG, avoiding 96% of gasoline usage.”

So why aren’t we (the collective we) doing more to move the world’s ground transportation fleet to PHEV? CJ does point out some practical concerns:

“I almost agree with you on this one. 1) The electric grid is in such poor shape that the added load of charging all these vehicles could put it over the edge. 2) Low temps effect the power output of batteries and 3) Gas electric hybrid's and their massive batteries are dangerous in a crash - both to the occupants and the emergency personnel - because disconnecting the battery no longer eliminates current flowing through the vehicle. As a member of a volunteer fire dept, there is a lot of concern over responding to hybrid's involved in accidents. The special training is just starting to hit small depts such as ours.”

Although CJ is right about the pathetic state of our electrical grid (like much of our infrastructure), I think the fact that PHEVs would be recharged mainly at night when the grid is way below peak usage mitigates this problem to a large extent (see more on this below). Moreover, having more nighttime usage for the grid improves the economics for capital improvements that need to be made anyway. The more kilowatt hours flow through a given segment, the more quickly investment in the segment can be amortized AND the less each kilowatt hour has to be burdened with depreciation.

Batteries do lose effectiveness in cold weather but the availability of the gasoline backup means that the driver isn’t stranded on a low electric mileage day.

The fire problem is an interesting one and CJ is much more qualified to comment on that than I am. Some work needs to be done here to prepare for a PHEV future.

CJ goes on to recommend fuel cell technology:

“However, there is a slightly different twist on your plugin that should be hitting the market soon from Honda (I believe). A fuel cell vehicle that will power the car without need for batteries and a gas engine, but the big advantage is that when you plug these vehicles in, they generate power. A home owner could supply their home electrical needs, or a portion of it, as well as get long range emission free driving. For businesses that have fleet vehicles, the generating benefits increase greatly. As well, small inputs into the existing grid from home power generation make the whole grid a more efficient system.”

The Honda he is talking about is the FCX Clarity which “Honda plans to lease to a limited number of retail consumers in Southern California with the first deliveries taking place in summer 2008.”  The FCX Clarity is NOT rechargeable; it requires a supply of hydrogen which, in turn, requires a delivery infrastructure which doesn’t yet exist. Moreover, although water is the only tailpipe emission from a fuel cell car; hydrocarbons are usually a by product of producing the hydrogen fuel supply just a some hydrocarbons are a by product of some methods of generating electricity. IMHO, fuel cells will be part of the global answer in time, perhaps the major part – but PHEVs are a quicker fix.

In an offline communication, friend Michael Birnbaum pointed to a post on salon.com by Andrew Leonard which talks about a study published in the March issue of Environmental Research Letters which concludes that the current electrical grid in California could support one million PHEVs without additional capacity assuming that they are not recharged in peak hours of peak days.

The study does say, however:

Even with gasoline dear at $4.00/gallon and electricity cheap at $0.05/kWh, vehicle purchasers may only find a compact car plug-in hybrid economical if its cost premium relative to an ordinary hybrid vehicle were under $2000 and if its cost premium relative to a conventional vehicle were under $3500. Such price premiums may require battery pack costs (including electronics, etc) under $650/kWh, while current battery pack prices for plug-in hybrids applications may well be in excess of $1000/kWh.”

Gas isn’t $4.00 gallon (yet) and electricity costs $.20/kWh here in the Northeast. Nevertheless, mass production should bring the cost of the battery pack down quickly to an acceptable level. The trick is to jump start the process so the battery cost can come down.

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