Friday, April 21, 2006

Driving Toward Energy Independence

By David Morris, AlterNet
Posted on April 21, 2006,

I imagine driving a car without consuming
petroleum, or generating pollution, or making
noise. Imagine getting the equivalent of 100 to
150 miles per gallon. Imagine that every time you
drove, you pumped money into the local economy,
rather than sending it to distant shores. Imagine
that this car was not only ideal personal
transportation but also a driving force, quite
literally, for transforming both agriculture and
electric-power generation in ways that benefited
farmers and urban dwellers alike.

Farfetched dreams? Not at all. All of the
necessary technologies have been developed and
road-tested in the battery-powered car, the
hybrid gas-electric car, the flexible-fuel car.
All that's needed is to combine these approaches
in a single vehicle that merges their advantages
and eliminates their shortcomings.

The hybrid car, introduced in the United States
only in 2000, is already a bestseller. More than
200,000 hybrid cars ply U.S. roads. But they
suffer one major limitation: They can't go more
than a mile or two on electricity alone. (Indeed,
GM and Honda hybrids can't go anywhere without
the gasoline engine running.) This makes them
glorified gasoline-powered vehicles, with an
electric motor assist. But a Toyota Prius or a
Ford Escape can be fitted with an expanded
battery pack, rechargeable from a household
outlet, that would let it travel 20 to 50 miles
between chargings. That is farther than many Americans drive every day.

Driving on electric power has many benefits.
Electric vehicles, or EVs, are quiet and
nonpolluting. Even taking into account increased
power plant emissions, EVs still produce less
pollution than gasoline- powered vehicles. And
EVs are remarkably efficient, achieving the
equivalent of over 100 miles per gallon -- twice
the mileage of the best existing hybrid.

Of course, the Achilles heel of the EV has been
the cost and performance limitations of its
batteries; sooner or later, most motorists want
to go more than 50 miles without stopping to recharge.

A plug-in hybrid overcomes that limitation by
having a backup engine -- but instead of the
gasoline engines used today, it could easily be a
flexible-fuel engine of the type now powering
more than 4 million vehicles on U.S. roads. These
engines operate on any combination of ethanol and
gasoline, and the additional cost to manufacture one has fallen to about $100.

But ethanol derived from corn or other biomass
also has its Achilles heel. Current U.S. gasoline
and diesel consumption is far too high to replace
with plant-derived fuels. Planting all available
agricultural acres in the country with
fast-growing trees or switchgrass could generate
only enough fuel to displace about 25 percent of current vehicle consumption.

Plug-in hybrids, however, overcome this biomass
limitation by using electric power to reduce fuel
consumption by as much as 85 percent. This lets
biofuels become primary fuels rather than minor additives.

With the introduction of plug-ins, the
transportation and electricity sectors begin to
merge. Utilities would probably offer EV owners
the option of recharging their batteries at a
lower cost at night, when demand is low. No new power plants would be needed.

Indeed, widespread use of plug-in hybrids could
address the principal disadvantage of wind
turbines to generate electricity -- the absence,
so far, of an efficient way to store the power
until it is needed. Wind is an intermittent power
source, making voltage only when the turbines are
spinning. But utilities need to dispatch
electricity when their customers demand it.

The batteries in thousands of plug-in hybrids,
connected to the grid through two-way household
outlets, could bridge this gap between generation
and delivery. Indeed, some studies estimate
utilities might pay EV owners $1,000 to $2,000 a
year for using their batteries to help balance
and stabilize the grid. (That's in addition to
saving perhaps $600 a year at the gas pump.)

One can even imagine tens of thousands of very
small wind turbines sprouting up at homes across
the country, built primarily to fuel vehicles.
Consider the arithmetic: Today, owners of large
wind turbines get paid about 4 cents per
kilowatt-hour (kWh) when they send the
electricity over the grid to distant buyers. A
farmer making wind power for his own use
displaces retail electricity priced at 5 to 8
cents per kWh. But if that electricity is used in
a plug-in hybrid, displacing gasoline, it is worth about 32 cents per kWh.

How futuristic are plug-in, flexible-fuel
vehicles? Ford has introduced the first flex-fuel
hybrid. Daimler Chrysler has about 100 plug-in
vehicles on the road. Most interesting, perhaps,
is the recent announcement by several companies
of a plug-in conversion kit for Prius and Escape
owners. One Canadian company has informed me that
an order of 1,000 kits would cut the price in
half (to between $4,000 and $5,000). At such a
price, payback could come in less than seven
years. And the costs will undoubtedly continue to decline.

The state of Minnesota, to use one example, has
several advantages that could make it a leader in
advancing these vehicles: An established ethanol
industry, abundant wind power, plenty of gas
stations selling E85 (half the national total, in
fact), a top-notch automotive engineering program
at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Not to
mention the Ford Motor Co.'s St. Paul plant, now
facing an uncertain future; it once made an
all-electric pickup truck, as well as a flex-fuel
pickup. In the future, it could make plug-in,
flex-fuel hybrids on assembly lines powered by its own hydroelectric turbines.

A bill that begins to put in place a plug-in,
flexible-fuel strategy is on the floor of the
Minnesota State Senate and is wending its way
through the Minnesota House. In five committees
there has not been a single negative vote in
either the Republican-controlled House or the
Democrat-controlled Senate. We hope such
unanimity sends American car companies a message.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of
the Institute for Local Self Reliance in
Minneapolis, Minn., and director of its New Rules
project. He is the author of the report, A Better
Way To Get There From Here (PDF). © 2006
Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at:

No comments: