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.

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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