July 28, 2006

The false promise of
plug-in hybrid vehicles

by Craig Volland

You'll be hearing a lot about plug-in hybrid automobiles as an industry-led PR campaign gains traction. Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are part-electric cars that allow consumers to plug in at home and still use gasoline when needed. They differ from gas-electric hybrid vehicles like the Prius, which are self contained. This concept is being promoted, for obvious reasons, by the electric utility industry under the Plug-in Partners Campaign (www.PluginPartners.com).

Spearheaded by Austin Energy, the local utility serving Austin, TX, and backed by a base of supporters in the southwest and southern California, the campaign’s immediate goal is to get US automakers to mass produce plug-in vehicles. Supporters like to quote high MPG numbers without mentioning where the electricity in the outlet comes from. Maybe it's generated inside the wall by mice running breathlessly in rotating cages.

I happened to be present a few months ago when Mid-America Regional Council's Air Quality Forum voted to join Plug-in Partners. The month before they had been treated to a dog and pony show by Austin Energy. I raised a number of obvious questions about this concept and was merely referred to the industry website. That told me that the Air Quality Forum had not independently researched this issue. So I looked into it myself.

The principle research supporting the Plug-in Partners Campaign was performed by the Electric Power Research Institute, which is the research arm of the electric utility industry. With my experience over many years with the mercury pollution issue, I knew that at least one goal of the EPRI is to arm the industry with information to resist regulation. The notion that plug-in hybrids will reduce ozone smog may be valid; however, it was clear that the research had not been done on the implications for global warming.

The basic and highly questionable assumption is that PHEVs will not add to peak electricity demand, the growth of which leads to new power plants, because people won't plug in during the day. So the typical, dutiful commuter, driving a small car, comes home at 6 PM, plugs in and starts dinner. The next morning he or she unplugs and drives to work and doesn't plug-in anywhere else. OK, so far so good. But what about these miscreants:

a) A housewife or househusband doesn't go to work, runs errands, comes home and plugs in at 3 PM (near the time summer peak load occurs in the grid);
b) An office worker goes across town for a lunch meeting and runs out of juice. Since subsidized electricity rates are cheaper than gasoline, at 12 PM she plugs into the credit card-actuated outlet at the nearest light pole (sure to become available from enterprising utility companies) and unplugs at 2 PM after the meeting; and
c) Wal-Mart installs hundreds of outlets in their parking lot actuated by bonus cards earned by shopping in any Wal-Mart store;

No law exists, or is ever likely to exist, to prevent these behaviors.

Meanwhile, US automakers go into mass production and decide to put this feature into trucks and SUVs because they are more profitable. They are sold to macho American males with TV ads featuring pretty girls flocking under a banner that says, "Get Charged Up!" The ads go on to say that these heavy-duty vehicles can carry all the extra batteries one needs.

The plug-in Hummer is born. GM's plug-in Hummer Model EZ will come complete with a year's supply of pork ribs and 24 oz steaks, and a Touchdown(Tm) built in, roll-out battery powered barbecue grill and a battery operated cooler and ice maker to make any tail gate party a great success! Note: owners will need a 220-volt outlet, and the cord will be as big around as your arm. This last feature only enhances the ardor of a would-be EZ owner.

Think I'm kidding? New York Times recently reported that Tesla Motors is introducing an electric car that goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds and will sell for at least $85,000, and travel 250 miles on a single charge. According to a spokesman, the way to get a new product into a mass market is to sell it to rich people.

Okay, let's assume everybody behaves as expected. But peak load in the grid is a moving target. Excessive electrical loads occur at different times in different parts of the country. In the Kansas City area, on hot summer days, peaking power may be required anytime from 2 to 6 PM. What if the consumer plugs in at 5 PM instead of 6 PM? Excess loads can last until midnight. If enough people plug in at 6 PM, the peak could easily increase and extend to late into the evening, thus calling for new generation capacity.

Then there's winter peak loads. It's not a problem in the Sunbelt where this campaign originates. Southern California Edison says that 4 million vehicles could be charged without exceeding the existing peak load. This would not be the case in colder parts of the country. In Minnesota, a recent study predicted a summer peak of 9943 megawatts and a winter peak of 8000 MW (Furnace fans, heating elements, heat pumps and incandescent lights). And the winter peak will occur at night when all the cars are plugged in, not during the day. Given the huge new loads possible from plug-in hybrids, it's easy to see how the annual peak load pattern could reverse in northern cities and require new capacity to handle winter loads.

So where is the additional power going to come from? The claim is that additional power needs can be met with natural gas or renewable energy. Do we really want to encourage a huge increase in the use of natural gas-fired power plants? In Kansas and other states the utility companies are fighting tooth and nail to avoid buying wind power, and they don't believe people will conserve an appreciable amount of electricity. Currently, there is no regulatory basis to prevent the construction of hundreds of new coal-fired power plants to meet demand from millions of plug-in hybrid vehicles. If there isn't the potential to sell millions of such vehicles, then US automakers won't make them.

Since American consumers usually fall for industry snake oil, I'm going to go ahead and line up for my Hummer Model EZ. I just know the girls will flock around like the old days...or were those just pigeons?

Craig Volland is Chair of the Air Quality Committee of the Kansas Chapter, Sierra Club.


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