Will plug-in hybrids erase the need for fuel-cell cars?

I’m fascinated by the idea of plug-in hybrids, an issue that I plan to write about in more detail in an upcoming Clean Break column. But first a little commentary here…

I was speaking today with Felix Kramer, the founder of the California Cars Initiative, or CalCars for short. Kramer has made it his life mission to convince auto makers in the United States to produce hybrid-electric cars that you can plug into a power socket, if you choose to do so. As you might have read in a recent column by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, there is growing acceptance of this idea among those often divergent political groups in the United States who either want to crack down on global warming, want to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil, or those who want to creates jobs domestically — or all of the above.

And why not? It’s a no-brainer, really. How hard could it be to design a car that runs like a Prius but, instead of relying strictly on regenerative breaking to charge the battery, the owner has the option of plugging the car into a household power socket at night? More than that, how hard could it be to design a car that could run strictly on that battery for about 30 kilometres (more than most people drive every day) and then automatically kicks into gas-electric hybrid mode when the battery is running low?

The answer? It’s not that difficult at all. It’s just that the auto manufacturers, for some bizarre reason, don’t seem to grasp the opportunity.

“If you have plug-in hybrids you could get 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2009,” Kramer told me.

And by shifting demand to domestic power utilities you dramatically reduce dependence on foreign oil. You’d think the power companies would be all over this.

Kramer said there are some studies suggesting that 30 million cars could be plugged into the U.S. grid at night with minimal impact on the grid. Those figures come from the Electric Power Research Institute. Not sure how they came up with that number — it’s something I intend to ask them.

You may point out that this shifting of dependency from oil to the grid will just mean the spewing of more pollution and greenhouse gases from coal and natural gas power plants. That’s true, but Kramer says when you do a well-to-wheels analysis you’re still reducing pollution/GHGs by shifting to the grid. Plus, gradual transition to renewable energy systems in the grid in effect make all plug-in hybrids on the road greener.

Now imagine if the fuel component of these plug-in hybrids was biodiesel or cellulose ethanol instead of gasoline or diesel? Once more, this reduces dependency on foreign fuel, and it would be easier to meet demand because if you’re relying more on grid power you wouldn’t need as much fuel.

Kramer has all kinds of good arguments… and on the surface at least they all make sense. His immediate goal is to organize fleet owners representing between 10,000 and 100,000 cars who would commit to buying plug-in optional hybrids. With that demand, he hopes one or more of the major auto manufacturers would step in with the supply, thus kicking off more mainstream production for the general public.

It’s funny, Honda just announced last week that it plans to have a fuel-cell car by 2020 that’s not that much more expensive than a conventional car. The question is why, in pursuing a hydrogen economy and fuel-cell cars, would we go about a major fuel infrastructure overhaul if we could keep existing infrastructure in place with a plug-in hybrid and still reach similar goals of reduced dependency and dramatically lower emissions?

I’ve written too much already… keep your eye out for my more detailed column on the issue. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer some of the questions posed here. I’ll provide a link when appears in The Toronto Star.

4 thoughts on “Will plug-in hybrids erase the need for fuel-cell cars?”

  1. Building a plug-in Prius is not difficult. Stories in the LA Times have previously noted that $130,000 bought the engineering know-how plus the conversion of four Toyotas to a plug-in charge and manual electric-only operation, along with the ability to run as a gas/electric hybrid. Between this, and the work on lithium-ion batteries that can recharge to roughly 80% of capacity in a few minutes, there is no real need for fuel-cell equipped automobiles.

    Fuel cells of the right type might still make sense for delivery vehicles or other niche applications, but those niches are likely going to be very small.

  2. The problem is that if everyone has one of these cars you will have people plugging in 1-2 cars everynight creating a problem for our hydro supply. I can’t see how we have enough electrical production to recharge everyone’s car overnight.

  3. I am happy somebody’s challanging the ubiquitious opinion in favor of hydrogene power.

    But why even the plug-in? What’s wrong with using bio fuel such as biodiesel, ethanol or even better, biogas without the plug-in.

Comments are closed.