I was tipped off to this article by Mr. Neutron (sorry N, everyone gets a nickname. See, I do too have something in common with Bush.)
Politicians and automakers say a car that can both reduce greenhouse gases and free America from its reliance on foreign oil is years or even decades away. Ron Gremban says such a car is parked in his garage.
It looks like a typical Toyota Prius hybrid, but in the trunk sits an 80-miles-per-gallon secret — a stack of 18 brick-sized batteries that boosts the car's high mileage with an extra electrical charge so it can burn even less fuel.
Gremban, an electrical engineer and committed environmentalist, spent several months and $3,000 tinkering with his car.
Like all hybrids, his Prius increases fuel efficiency by harnessing small amounts of electricity generated during braking and coasting. The extra batteries let him store extra power by plugging the car into a wall outlet at his home in this San Francisco suburb — all for about a quarter.
He's part of a small but growing movement. "Plug-in" hybrids aren't yet cost-efficient, but some of the dozen known experimental models have gotten up to 250 mpg.
The extra batteries let Gremban drive for 20 miles with a 50-50 mix of gas and electricity. Even after the car runs out of power from the batteries and switches to the standard hybrid mode, it gets the typical Prius fuel efficiency of around 45 mpg. As long as Gremban doesn't drive too far in a day, he says, he gets 80 mpg.
As a Prius owner this sounds pretty intriguing. I had heard about this before (I think Thomas Freidman mentioned it in passing a few weeks ago) and wondered how it worked and it sounds fairly simple, tho I have heard it voids your warranty so I doubt I will do it anytime soon. It also looks like it takes up a pretty good amount of your already limited trunk space. But even if I never do it myself it seems like something the car companies themselves could easily do. Why don't they?
But Toyota and other car companies say they are worried about the cost, convenience and safety of plug-in hybrids — and note that consumers haven't embraced all-electric cars because of the inconvenience of recharging them like giant cell phones.
This seems like a fair argument but one that shouldn't be too hard to overcome if they were really interested in doing so. I have had my Prius for almost 3 years now and still get people asking me if I have to plug it in. People don't want all electric cars because they think they will run out of power and be stuck somewhere which is a legitimate fear. The plug-in hybrids seem like the perfect solution--if people just think of the plug-in part as a bonus add-on to what is essentially a regular car. And this sounds even cooler:
Monrovia-based Energy CS has converted two Priuses to get up to 230 mpg by using powerful lithium ion batteries. It is forming a new company, EDrive Systems, that will convert hybrids to plug-ins for about $12,000 starting next year, company vice president Greg Hanssen said.
University of California, Davis engineering professor Andy Frank built a plug-in hybrid from the ground up in 1972 and has since built seven others, one of which gets up to 250 mpg. They were converted from non-hybrids, including a Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Suburban.
Frank has spent $150,000 to $250,000 in research costs on each car, but believes automakers could mass-produce them by adding just $6,000 to each vehicle's price tag.
Instead, Frank said, automakers promise hydrogen-powered vehicles hailed by President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though hydrogen's backers acknowledge the cars won't be widely available for years and would require a vast infrastructure of new fueling stations.
"They'd rather work on something that won't be in their lifetime, and that's this hydrogen economy stuff," Frank said. "They pick this kind of target to get the public off their back, essentially."
I'm not generally a conspiracy theory guy (you hear unlikely stories every few years about some guy who has invented a new X mpg engine only to have the oil companies pay him off to keep it off the market) and hydrogen fuel cells do sound like a promising technology, but this sounds entirely plausible, especially when the Bush administration is concerned. I'm sure they are happy to pretend they are doing something about the nation's energy issues while kicking any actual work on the matter down the road and at the same time keeping their big donors in the oil business from losing either money or sleep over the issue. As for me, I have a garage with a south facing roof and I am looking forward to putting up a few solar panels and plugging in my car.
I know a very little bit about hydrogen fuel cells. It's a very promising technology, but is still more fiction than science. There are some tax credits for fuel cell vehicles. I don't know if there are any tax credits for manufacturing plug in hybrids.
Batteries will always be a problem in making cars move. You need a lot of heavy batteries to propel a car. You end up with smaller cars filled with more and more batteries to improve range and performance. Battery performance and life degrades in extreme temperatures. Neither Minnesota's cold nor Arizona's heat is good for batteries.
Someone can help me with my math, but a cost of $6,000 to increase fuel economy from 50 to 250 miles per gallon doesn't make any financial sense, even at $2.50 a gallon. You're saving .018 gallons of gas per mile driven, so you'd have to drive 130,000 miles to save the 2,400 gallons of gas to justify the $6,000 up front expense.
The problem is not the Prius. The problem is the Hummer and the Truckasaurus. Taking the Prius from 45 to 250 miles per gallon yields the same decrease in gas consumption per mile as taking a Hummer from 10 miles per gallon to 12 miles per gallon.
And, you have to consider the fact that it takes energy to produce energy. I'm told that it takes more btu's for example to make ethanol than you get out of it. So, Pawlenty's efforts to increase ethanol usage are essentially more corporate welfare (the good kind, I guess since welfare for poor people is the bad kind) for big farmers, and a net loss in energy efficiency.
What I do not understand is the reluctance of the liberals to embrace nuclear power. Unless you're a Luddite, where else do we get enough electricity?
All that being said, I'll take Hammer's Hummer point.
By 3:26 PM, at
I come up with slightly different numbers (I think you may have rounded off in there somewhere) but your point is well taken. Assuming one drives 10,000 miles a year the 45 to 250 change for the Prius saves 182 gallons of gas a year while the 10 to 12 change saves the Hummer driver 167 gallons so you are right about the relative benefits of changing MPGs.
On the other hand driving 130,000 miles (I came up with 150,000, but no matter) to break even on your investment is not unreasonable. What's more, I like the idea just on general principles. I read before buying my Prius that the actual gas savings did not add up to enough to cover the extra cost that one paid for a Prius over a similarly appointed car with lower MPG. (Tho gas was quite a bit cheaper then so I wonder if the calculus has changed.) I didn't really care because I am one of those squishy headed liberals that did it just to make a point about protecting the environment and to help prove there was a market for such vehicles. Of course I am also one of those "tax loving Democrats" that would like to see much bigger tax on gas in this country, too.
On the down side I am also not unaware of the environmental problems that come with all those batteries when they have passed their useful life and need to be disposed of. I sure hope there are some good recycling plans in the works for those coming days.
I've been trying to educate myself on ethanol for awhile now, because I, too, have heard that ethanol is a net energy loss. Now, this can't strictly be true, right? That would be a huge boondoggle. Ethanol is, at bottom, solar energy converted to corn converted to ethanol. If it takes 1 gallon of gasoline to produce 1 gallon of ethanol, we're making a huge mistake with all the tax credits.
I suspect ethanol is somewhat efficient and has some positives. But I'd like to know for sure. If anyone knows a good, fair, honest source, I'd be very interested.
Nuclear power isn't necessary. It's unappealing because it's dangerous. You could have a meltdown or a terrorist attack. You have thermal pollution issues in rivers. You have transuranic waste and spent nuclear fuel to worry about. And worry about for tens of thousands of years.
Nuclear power isn't necessary for a couple reasons. First, if we took the cost of a new nuclear reactor and put that toward energy efficient appliances, light bulbs, street lights, etc., energy efficiency would be the net winner. Second, we have enormous domestic sources of energy that are untapped. Coal, which can be burned cleanly if we so choose. Wind power on bad days, solar power on sunny days.
Now, if we can't maintain our standard of living with a combination of efficient consumption, coal, and clean fuels, then nuclear is the next option. (Forgot tidal power, that might work, too.)
Or, we can all power our televisions with recumbent bicycles.
Will your batteries last 130,000 miles? If not, how long will they last? How many replacements will you need?
On the other hand, by burning less fuel, you are also contributing far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. The price of gas is not the only cost to driving a gasoline powered car. So there's that to feel good about, too.
The big problem, TRR, is what do you do with the waste. I am not a Luddite (tho I do have a couple in my extended family) and can see the arguments for Nuclear power and am a bit more sympathetic to them than I was, say, 10 years ago. However, the waste issue still needs to be dealt with as does the fact that it still requires that you dig a lot of fuel out of the ground, not much of which happens to be controlled by the US. Like most liberals I would much prefer to see more emphasis on renewables like solar and wind power, and on conservation. That said, I don't see us getting away from some dependence on nuclear, I jsut don't think we should be adding to it.
Nobody yet knows how long the Prius batteries will last. I guess we will find out. Hope they are better than my laptop batteries!
One other thing with nuclear power: corporate welfare in terms of liability insurance. The private sector won't insure nuclear power plants (that should say something to free market types, shouldn't it?) so the government has to foot the bill.
I hear stories -- don't know if they are true or not -- about nuclear waste sitting in unacceptable storage casks well past the recommended time. The stories could be apocryphal, but I've consistently heard that the lack of permanent storage facilities has created a crisis of temporary storage.
Hammer, you might have a point about ethanol being solar power converted through corn. But, that doesn't take into account all the oil farmers use in equipment and fertilizer to grow enough to actually make a difference, as well as the cost of converting the corn into ethanol. Any way you cut it, it's a special interest boondoggle.
By 5:53 PM, at
I'm worried that our continued reliance on coal will allow the power companies to emit an unacceptable amount of mercury into the air every day. I'm not sure how 'clean coal' is going to be implemented by the power companies, as its a 'set' of technology, not a solution to all problems.
Newer designs for nuclear plants, such as pebble bed, are far more reliable and resilant to systems failure, as far as I know.
If we can't figure out fusion in time and our options are imported LNG, really expensive oil, coal, or nuclear for the base power load its going to end up being a tossup between coal and nuclear is my guess. If clean coal turns out to usually not implement carbon sequestration I'm really only left with a mix of nuclear, LNG, and solar/wind (and other sources like biomass, etc).
What we *really* need is a good battery. A super-efficient way to charge batteries and use their energy effectively with long usable life (like 5-10 years, hopefully) would be very nice. I don't think we're there yet with batteries, and last I heard fuel cells are just now being 'real world' tested for how long they will run.
Hydrogen fuel cells may still be the best technology for storage, but I don't know their ability to deal with our weather yearly. (-25F or worse anyone?)
By 2:56 AM, at
TRR: I suspect you are right on ethanol, but I still want to see an objective review of the inputs and the outputs. Good policy is good policy, even when it's bad politics.
renner: we need to tighten the new source performance standards on coal emissions for all pollutants, including mercury. We also need to vigorously enforce new source review. The Bush administration has so weakened new source review that hardly any coal burning plants are required to follow the NSPS. We need to be cleaner with new plants, but it's far more important to clean up the old plants.
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