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Plug In, Drop Out

+Jim Motavalli is the author most recently of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry (Rodale), and is a contributor to The New York Times, Car Talk at NPR, and the Mother Nature Network.

If I were buying a new car today, I’d reluctantly pass on ethanol (E85) and biodiesel options. My car of choice would be a plug-in hybrid – probably the Chevy Volt, although the Ford C-Max Energi and Honda Accord also look very attractive.

I see the plug-in hybrid as a transitional technology on the way to electric cars. Pure battery electric vehicles (EVs) are still pretty expensive, and on vehicles like the Nissan Leaf they’re still getting the bugs out. Some owners in Phoenix are finding out that running a car without active temperature control for the battery pack in 100-degree-plus weather reduces battery range. No doubt the second generation of the Leaf will be much better.

photo of a charging wire connected to a carGeneral Motors photo

As talk show host Jay Leno told me with quite a bit of passion, the plug-in hybrid idea – 40 miles of all-electric range from a modest battery pack, backed up with a gas engine capable of another 300 miles or more – just makes sense. Leno bought a Volt, and promptly put 10,000 miles on it without using the gasoline engine much at all. The Volt, he said, is “the smart one.” Why? Because it’s “an electric car 95 percent of the time. But when you need to go to Vegas or San Francisco, it turns into a regular car. That’s the key.”

Both automakers and EV advocates – who hate the idea of burning any gas at all – point out that most of us never travel more than 35 miles in a day, including the round-trip commute. I buy that. But we also take longer trips occasionally, and there still aren’t enough public recharging networks along our highway to make EVs viable for long-distance trips – yet. But make no mistake, the era of the EV is coming.

I have no doubt that we’re headed for electrified transportation on a global basis, even if we have to go over some speed bumps to get there. I want to see battery EVs come down in price and extend range from the current 100-mile average (80 or so in the real world) to a reliable 125 miles or so. That will do a lot to kill “range anxiety” – drivers’ worries that they won’t be able to find a recharge station. I expect both of these things to happen with technology now in the pipeline. For instance, Envia Systems, a battery maker in
California, announced in February 2012 that it had achieved what it called a “major breakthrough” in lithium-ion cell technology that would result in a significant increase in the energy density – and a sharp reduction in the cost – of lithium-ion battery packs. Battery technology sat dormant for decades (lead-acid was state of the art in 1910 – and 1980 as well), but now everybody is looking for the new killer app.

I like some biofuels, although palm oil – produced in Southeast Asia by clear-cutting rainforests – is an example of how it can go horribly wrong. But other biofuels are better. Biodiesel, for instance, makes a great cottage industry. People have formed local collectives to produce it, and some drivers have modified their cars to run on pure vegetable oil. Some McDonald’s restaurants in the UK are even converting their own waste grease into biodiesel to run some of their trucks. I applaud those efforts. Long may they persevere.

I’m also very interested in cellulosic ethanol, especially because the fuel can be made from fast-growing native grasses that would thrive on waste land. That avoids the “food vs. fuel” controversy that plagues corn ethanol. But cellulosic ethanol, while enormously promising, is still in an embryonic stage.

My problem with biofuels in general and biodiesel from soybean crops specifically is that they don’t scale appropriately. Buying a car that runs on biodiesel or E85 gasoline might be a smart choice for an individual. But it’s not a solution for society as a whole. There’s simply not enough land for us to feed ourselves and grow enough biomass to fuel our vehicles.

Even though the US is the king of soybean production, we can never produce enough to power the transportation monster, even were we to divert the whole crop from animal feed and other uses. A group called the Energy Justice Network reports: “In order to produce enough biodiesel to convert our entire transportation needs to soy biodiesel, we would need to plant 2.8 billion acres of farmland in soybeans. In the US, roughly 302 million acres of land is now used for growing crops.” Right now about 81 million acres are planted in soybeans. You see how far we have to go.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Veggie oil or plug-in electric? Vote and be counted.

According to David Pimentel of Cornell (a critic not exactly beloved in biofuel circles), “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel. These strategies are not sustainable.” He says that “soybean plants require 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.” Corn ethanol appears to be an even worse bargain energy-wise. T.W. Patzek, a professor at UC-Davis, argues that “more fossil fuel energy is used to produce ethanol from corn than the ethanol’s calorific value.”

Yes, biofuels have a modest role to play. But I think the future is electric. Eventually we’ll all be driving electric cars with electrons produced from zero-emission sources like solar and wind. In the meantime, the plug-in hybrid is an excellent stepping stone.

Anyone have a good used Chevy Volt for sale?

For an opposing view, read what Don Scott has to say.


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Very interesting now I have a new job before I return my leased car. Meanwhile I am investigation ways to save energy.In this country everything has to be made using the car miraculously we still have to walk inside malls. How much energy would we save if we walk more, use the animal traction small vehicles in farms, ride horses to go places even training the dog to pick up the newspaper, using the wind to move small boats in rivers. Looks like a joke but think, about.

By D.H. Hernandez on Thu, January 31, 2013 at 6:55 am

I have never been a professor at UC Davis.  I spent 18 year at Cal Berkeley as a professor of geoengineering.

Unfortunately, this is just one on many more serious factual errors in this article and the comments that follow.

As a reality check please read my 2007 OECD paper, “How Can We Outlive Our Way of Life?”  This paper was prepared for the fall 2007 meeting of the EU ministers of environment and transportation.

Please try to appreciate just how prescient this paper was.  For those who cannot be bothered with too much reading, here is the translation:

For the fundamental reasons related to the Earth’s global metabolism, a high volume production of biofuels is not possible at the scale of the planet.

By Tadeusz W. Patzek on Thu, December 06, 2012 at 7:05 am

I have a Chevy Volt also, and I love it. But driving the Volt has also made me aware of the limitations of electric vehicles such as cost, range and sensitivity to temperature.  My range (here in Michigan) has gone from 40 miles per charge to about 29—and we haven’t even gotten to the cold part of the winter. Electric vehicles can and should fill a significant part of the light duty vehicle market but they can never serve the heavy truck market, construction equipment, shipping and jet transport…and most rail transport.  We need both electric vehicles and biofuels.  It is not either/or.  Also, there are many other knowledgeable academics who disagree with the methods and conclusions of Profs. Pimentel and Patzek.  If you want a balanced treatment of that subject, it is pretty easy to find: Google an article in Sustainability by C. Hall, B. Dale and D. Pimentel.

By Bruce Dale on Wed, December 05, 2012 at 4:02 am

Patzek hasn’t been at U.C. Davis for almost five years.  His bogus ethanol energy studies (which included energy from sunlight, as if that could shine somewhere else if farmers didn’t plant corn) got him a gig at the University of Texas, where he’s a professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. Pimentel is an entymologist - a bug doctor, and if you asked any farmer about his inputs for corn calculations, and any ethanol maker about his energy inputs for making ethanol, they’d tell you he’s full of the stuff dung beetles (something he knows) feed on.
And where will we get all this electricity? From coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plants? And what of the energy balance of that process? There is possibly no process that is less energy efficient than making electricity - regardless of how we make it.
I cringe every time someone says “we can’t replace all of X, so we shouldn’t even try.”  I’ve got news for you, if 250 million cars were plugged in every night to recharge, we wouldn’t have power to exchange our views on the internet - or power to do anything else. But assuming we would change to a fleet of electric cars all at once is as stupid as assuming every diesel car would start running one vegetable oil diesel overnight, and almost as dumb as suggesting the only kind of vegetable oil that would be used would be from soybeans.
My main question is, Why does it have to be one or the other? Why not some electrics, some hybrids, some ethanol, some biodiesel, some solar power, some wind, some geothermal, some hydro, and a whole lost less oil? Fossil fuel producers want us to argue against each other - because it beats the hell out of all of us arguing against them.

By Ronnie V on Wed, December 05, 2012 at 12:16 am

My question, that often seems over looked, is the environmental costs for producing the batteries. What happens when the batteries need replacement…land fills? How toxic and how much energy is used to manufacture the batteries, then transport them to different manufacturers globally? What is the eco score from a-z versus biodiesel or hydrogen, etc?

By Eric S. on Mon, December 03, 2012 at 1:10 pm

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