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Plug-In Hybrid Prototype

Valence Technologies (a battery producer) and EnergyCS (a maker of computer control systems) are introducing a plug-in hybrid concept car based on the Toyota Prius. The concept plug-in hybrid gets up to 180 miles-per-gallon for commute-type use of 50-60 miles per day. The design uses a custom lithium-ion battery with a longer life and better discharge rates than current standards.

Given the generally uninspiring performance and inconvenience of past electric cars, it's no surprise that makers of hybrids have gone out of their way to emphasize that hybrid-electric vehicles don't have to be plugged in. As it happens, however, the option to plug them in would be a good thing, enabling a variety of useful features -- longer electric-only range, the ability to recharge batteries using lower-cost (and sometimes renewable-sourced) overnight grid power, even the ability to run the household with vehicle batteries for a limited time should the power go out (something I personally could have used this morning).

Today's news about the rapid-recharge Li-ion battery technology from Toshiba is both good and bad for the plug-in hybrid concept. Bad because the rapid-recharge means that there would be little need to plug in overnight to recharge the vehicle batteries, eliminating one of the arguments for the model. Good, conversely, because anything that makes hybrid batteries more powerful and usable is bound to be seen as having broader applications.

(Via Green Car Congress)

Comments (10)

The main drawback to an all-electric strategy is that there simply isn't enough electricity out there to power all our cars, as well as power our homes, offices, factories, etc.

It's a scalability issue that solar electric, biodiesel, and other alternatives all face.

In the short-term, though, it would be appealing to have vehicles that are primarily driven by electric power that comes from renewables like wind.

Our local Galactic Pizza does just that.

Another local outfit, Izzy's Ice Cream, also has the same mission, except that the power is for the store.

More on some local "virtuous businesses" for those who think little happens in "flyover country".

This is a hybrid, with an enhancement to the electric mode through better battery technology and the option to charge the batteries from an electricity source instead of from the gas engine. I agree with you Joseph, that it would be absurd to scale up the electricity grid to power vehicular transport. (You made that point re nuclear energy having anything to do with replacing imported oil.) But having this option built into the car may often be a good thing, especially in smog-bound areas such as L.A., if the electricity is in surplus during off-peak times, or if it's from renewables. Seems like a useful option, not a panacea.

Once again my inarticulateness has tripped me up. I was riffing off of the comment Jamais made when I said "electric-only", referring to a mode that the Valence vehicle travels in, not to the overall capabilities of the car -- I realize it's a mod of a Prius.

I also shouldn't have confused matters further by referencing the all-electric scooters used by a local pizza chain.

I was just trying to demonstrate that, in the short-term, I support more use of electric power for vehicle propulsion (whether it be an electric vehicle or a hybrid) as it could definitely help build the market for renewables in the process, or as you said, at least take advantage of off-peak power that might otherwise be wasted. Same goes for people using biodiesel in their VWs etc -- a good short-term approach to build the market.

But I also stated the caveat about scalability, only because I have a sense that most people don't really grasp how much energy is involved in moving a car around.

To use an example from my own life -- our household electricity consumption is about 250 kWh per month on average. Our vehicles average 33.5 mpg.

A gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 125,000 BTUs and a kWh of electricity is equivalent to 3,413 BTUs. So, our monthly household electricity consumption is the equivalent of 853,250 BTUs. That's the same as 6.8 gallons of gas, which can move my vehicles 229 miles. If we had a Prius and could achieve 60 MPG (to be optimistic), our vehicles could go 410 miles on the same amount of energy that powers my whole house.

To give that some context, the average household drives over 21,000 miles per year, or 1,750 miles per month. So, a car getting 60 MPG (assuming a one car household) would consume 4 1/4 times as much electricity as we currently consume, if it was powered by electricity alone and achieved a 60 MPG level of efficiency.

Currently, automobiles and light trucks consume about 16 quadrillion BTUs (quads) per year in the US, or roughly 16% of total energy consumption.

To compare, total electricity consumption is around 12.5 quads, of which 4.4 quads is residential electricity consumption.

So, assume a doubling of efficiency of the US auto and light truck fleet (and no growth in its size etc), then its energy consumption at that doubly-efficient level would still be almost twice the amount of all energy used as electricity in homes, and about 2/3 of all electricity used in this country for all purposes.

What that all means is that we'd basically have to double the electric power generating capacity in this country just to power (with electricity) a fleet of vehicles that is twice as efficient as all vehicles are today - which we seem to all agree is not a good idea.

Those are some hard numbers applied to the issue of scalability, for what it's worth.

No argument there, Joseph. And examining further, the 3413 Btu's in a kWh of electricity typically require 8500 to 11,500 Btu of primary thermal energy, the balance being lost to turbine or distribution losses. So you're right - this is a niche development, helpful as a prototype but not as a mass replacement.

Another dilemma: if we could do as you posit, and double US auto & light truck efficiency, and stabilize its size, then the price of gasoline would drop to a point where further R&D in alternatives wouldn't be worth it. That's what I think happened in the 80's. Price spikes from the 70's set off conservation efforts AND increase-the-supply efforts. Those 2 trends collided into a big drop in the real price of energy, setting the stage for brontomobiles and starter castles.

And examining further, the 3413 Btu's in a kWh of electricity typically require 8500 to 11,500 Btu of primary thermal energy, the balance being lost to turbine or distribution losses.

Good point!

But now you've done it - I'm going to have to share all the lovely flow charts from the EIA.

Natural Gas

Over 68% of the energy to make electricity is lost before end-use consumption, mostly because of conversion losses. Then again, how much of the original energy potential of raw petrolem actually gets converted into motive power to move a human body in an automobile? It probably makes that 68% loss look relatively efficient.

And you raise another great point about the dynamics of efficiency - gains can actually move a market back towards inefficiency by dropping prices. Congestion relief has a similar perverse dynamic - getting cars off the road lessens congestion which... makes it more enticing to drive.

Argh. We have to get outside of these strange loops altogether. That's why I'll still keep pushing for more dialog about subsurface maglev PRT which can serve both local and long-distance trips, coupled with better housing, neighborhood, and city design which moves us toward a primarily walking distance daily lifestyle.

"And you raise another great point about the dynamics of efficiency - gains can actually move a market back towards inefficiency by dropping prices. Congestion relief has a similar perverse dynamic - getting cars off the road lessens congestion which... makes it more enticing to drive."

Systems heads call this "policy resistance." The "strange loops" are counterintuitive. Systems stubbornly persist in "bad" behavior because we overlook all the loops working overtime to compensate for our actions. Pesticides, antibiotics, and the "Wars" on "Drugs" and "terrorism" are prime examples. The predator strengthens the prey.

I think that so far, certain European countries have shown the most workable policy to address energy waste, by taxing energy significantly, issuing pretty strong land-planning and building code laws, and investing in some cutting-edge infrastructure, such as high-speed rail and cleaner diesel. A lot of what they do goes against the libertarian, free-market grain, and may not be politically feasible in the U.S.

Sigh. Well, keep working. The idea of "distributed computing" - many processors working to solve a very large problem - has led to the idea of "distributed solutions" - many of us working on a small piece of the problem, but linking our efforts in a network, each of us aware of how our little piece fits into the whole. That's what's so great about the folks engaged here.

Jeff Rusch:

I may be missing something, but isn't scaling up the electricity grid to accomodate plug-in vehicles kind of inevitable? Or is everyone here thinking that hydrogen will emerge as an electricity storage medium? (I'm not getting a sense of the total solution from people's posts.)

I envision an all-electric economy, where we have distributed solar, wind and wave all putting energy into a scaled up and intelligent grid--with cars programmed to "fill up" at off-peak times while parked in the garage (say 2 am), with some financial incentives built in, like cheaper electricity at those hours.

Or is scaling up the grid, even with off-peak usage, so difficult that hydrogen or something else *must* emerge to store and transport the energy between say, the wave power station and the car because the grid will never be able to handle it? Is it cheaper to invent a hydrogen distribution network, or scale up the grid? Or is there some other way?

I'm guessing that eventually, if distributed clean energy works, cars/transport, large buildings and factories will be the only things using more energy than they produce, so the grid will be mostly for them, as well as to even out the momentary disparities in local production/consumption, and that a fat grid will just make the most sense sooner or later.

Ken Ng:

"A gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 125,000 BTUs and a kWh of electricity is equivalent to 3,413 BTUs"

Joseph, you missed a very important point in your comparision. The internal combustion engine (not to mention the transmission that come with it) is much less efficient in turning thermal energy to mechanical energy than the electric motor.

Even after taking the power plants' efficiency into the equation, power plant + car electric motor is still more efficient than the combustion engine in turning fuel into millages.

Joshua Spotts:

Something I would like to see is the total output of pollutants from power plants versus that of vehicles on a replacement basis. i.e. If we replaced all of the vehicles with electric grid powered ones what would the exchange in pollutants be after ramping up the grid eletricity production.


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