Automakers plugging in for less pollution

Chevrolet, which has put a lot of time and money into its Volt concept car, shown here, plans to have a plug-in ready by 2012.
Chevrolet, which has put a lot of time and money into its Volt concept car, shown here, plans to have a plug-in ready by 2012.Chevrolet
/ Source: Forbes Autos

If more than half of U.S. motorists switched to plug-in hybrid vehicles, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would plummet by the middle of this century, according to a July 19 study from the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Several automakers are gearing up to their part, but major obstacles remain.

Could the power grid handle such a widespread switch to vehicles that guzzle from electric sockets instead of gas pumps? Opinions differ.

And are millions of consumers willing to plug their cars into a wall outlet just like they would a toaster? Not quite yet, industry insiders say.

The study found that if plug-ins accounted for 60 percent or more of new vehicles sold, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by a third — or, about 450 million metric tons annually — by the year 2050. The researchers factored in a period of time for plug-in sales to ramp up.

Chevrolet, Saturn and Toyota are among the automakers experimenting with plug-in hybrids.

Saturn might well be the first one to market. It announced at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show that it is developing a plug-in version of the Vue Hybrid that it hopes to start selling in 2009.

Chevrolet, which has put a lot of time and money into its Volt concept car, plans to have a plug-in ready to sell to consumers by 2012. The company makes the scintillating promise that people who drive less than 40 miles per day will never have to fill up, and those who drive more than that will average 150 mpg.

Toyota is developing what it calls the Plug-in HV, which made headlines this week when the Japanese government gave approval for the vehicle to run on public roads for tests. However, the company would not say when it might start selling plug-ins to the public.

Plug-ins do have some big problems to overcome: the added cost, weight and cargo space of the batteries they must house; the limited range of the batteries when charged; and the impact on the power grid from millions of people plugging in their cars.

States like California and big cities like New York know a thing or two about blackouts due to high demand for electricity in summer months. Residents there are also familiar with the rate hikes that accompany the local electric companies’ struggle to improve their infrastructure.

So what kind of impact would plug-ins have on this energy source?

Mike Omotoso, a senior manager at the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates, said he thinks widespread electricity demand for cars has the potential to be an issue.

“We haven’t looked at that sort of extreme scenario in terms of that level of volume for plug-ins, but the increased demand would possibly put a strain on the grid — especially in places like California that are already under strain some times of the year, like in peak summer periods with everyone using their air-conditioning,” he said. “So you could have possible power outages. Or they would raise the price to a level where only wealthier consumers would be able to afford to have a plug-in hybrid.”

But the two groups behind the study — the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action organization based in New York, and the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit center for energy and environmental research in Palo Alto, Calif. — said utilities can handle the expected power demand.

Luke Tonachel, a vehicle analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the study indicates that “a significant increase in plug-ins would only cause an increase in electricity use of about 7 to 8 percent overall.” That is not enough to be a problem, Tonachel said.

And Mark Duvall, program manager with the Electric Power Research Institute and one of the study’s authors, said that the increase of 7 to 8 percent in electric use to fuel cars would reduce U.S. oil consumption by close to 4 million barrels per day by 2050, which seems like a fair trade-off.

Would this increased dependence on electricity cause further air pollution — this time coming from smokestacks instead of tailpipes? Duvall argues that it would not. He said that even if utilities are called on to generate more power, they can’t increase their emissions beyond a certain point, because of government regulations.

“If you demand extra electricity from a utility sector that is already producing its maximum amount of emissions, the utility sector will have to respond by switching to cleaner fuels, building cleaner and newer plants, or adding pollution equipment,” he said. “We don’t want to move forward with electricity as a transportation fuel if it creates air quality problems, and that’s unlikely.”

A trade group for companies in the electric industry agrees with Duvall’s assessment.

Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, said his group believes that the increased use of plug-ins would improve air quality overall and that utilities can handle the demand, particularly since most people are expected to recharge the vehicles at night.

“The way it works is, you come home at night, and you plug your car into a conventional socket. And at night, when the demand on the electric power system is at its most modest, everybody’s recharging their car for the next day,” Owen said.

“The theory is that if you do it that way, you don’t really have to build very much new power plant capacity," he said. "Most power plants are not very heavily taxed in the evening hours.”

Owen conceded that there would be some added pollution from using more electricity, but not so much that it would outweigh the benefits of switching from gas-powered vehicles to plug-ins.

But of all the challenges facing plug-ins, the biggest one is swaying consumers to make the switch in the first place, said J.D. Power’s Omotoso.

“We’re not really expecting a significant volume in plug-ins in the next five to seven years,” Omotoso said. “Manufacturers are concentrating on hybrid electric vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, the Lexus RX, the Ford Escape Hybrid and so on. One of the restrictions is battery power. Toyota was quoted recently as saying that the battery capacity would have to be doubled for plug-ins to really work. And, of course, that takes up extra space in the car and costs extra money. Most manufacturers are experimenting with plug-ins now, but it’s at a very small level.”