A lot has happened since the Redmond, Wash. "Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation" conference earlier this month on electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which was sponsored by Cascadia Center, Microsoft, Idaho National Laboratory (INL), WSDOT, USDOT and Pemco Insurance. For starters, Time Magazine's environmental correspondent Bryan Walsh, who attended both days of the event and interviewed key sources there, has published an important article titled, "Is America Ready To Drive Electric?" Walsh writes:
If plug-ins suddenly became popular, before the grid had a chance to get smarter, it could lead to a real power predicament...A...solution: tap into the enormous extra capacity of the grid during off-peak times, like between midnight and dawn...To do that, however, we need to persuade plug-in owners to recharge ....late at night, when demand is low....to make that system work, utilities will need to install smart meters in customers' homes capable of monitoring when cars are charging, and then...price the juice accordingly; smart meters are already being tested out by utilities in California and Texas. These changes would also help utilities even out the peaks and valleys that come with providing power. "The hope is that we'll be able to actively regulate our grid to improve efficiency," says Brian Wynne, president of the D.C.-based Electric Drive Transportation Association. "There is tremendous potential."
A shift to plug-in cars could also help the development of renewable power...While a power grid fueled by solar or wind would be clean...it would also be intermittent...But if millions of electric cars were plugged into the grid, they could act as mini-batteries, storing renewable electricity as it's generated -- and eventually even channeling electricity back into grid during cloudy or windless days, a system called vehicle-to-grid. "If you have control over renewable power resources and plug-ins, you can start to synchronize the two," says John Clark, CEO of V2Green, a Seattle start-up that is looking to integrate the grid and plug-in vehicles, and which has already begun field trials with utilities in Austin, Texas. "To utilities, electric cars can become batteries on wheels."
Clark (pictured, above right) shared additional details at Cascadia's "Beyond Oil" conference; his PowerPoint is the fourth from the top under "Thursday September 4th Presentations," here. V2Green's big idea has been steadily gaining notice, and just this week they've been bought by GridPoint of Arlington, Va. Seattle Times business reporter Angel Gonzalez writes:
The sale of V2Green, one of the region's most promising clean-technology companies, comes as electric vehicles seem to be gaining momentum as an alternative to fossil fuel-powered vehicles....The acquisition by GridPoint comes early in the life of V2Green, which was founded in late 2006 by former Microsoft executive David Kaplan. Chief Executive John Clark said the buyer is "an incredibly well-capitalized group on a mission that's very similar to ours. ...We can spend time out there trying to raise money or we can partner up. In this climate, having a lot of dry powder is not a bad thing," Clark said.
More here on V2Green from MSNBC's science editor Alan Boyle, who also attended "Beyond Oil," and later rode with Clark and the City of Seattle's Rich Feldman in a city-owned Prius converted to a plug-in as part of pilot project which, according to INL's Michael Hagood, Cascadia Center played a key role in facilitating.
All good, but what about automakers? How interested are they in electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles? In a word, very. Their survival depends on a new generation of leaner, greener vehicles, especially electrics, and plug-in hybrids that can run on electricity and liquid fuels. These must eventually include the second-generation biofuels now under development, derived from sources such as algae and byproducts of forestry and agriculture.
Chrysler To Develop Plug-in Hybrid Mini-van and Jeep Wrangler
General Motors, on its 100th birthday, last week unveiled a model of the new Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid coming to showrooms by 2010; and Chrysler announced that like GM and Toyota, it will develop plug-in hybrids - a Chrysler mini-van and a Jeep Wrangler.
None of this will be a slam dunk, either for manufacturers or consumers. Plug-in hybrids are going to cost somewhere between $30,000 and $45,000 at the outset, ballpark. The long-term cost savings on fuel and maintenance still make that a smart investment, but the price point could still be a stumbling block for some. The U.S. Senate this week passed legislation including a $7,500 tax credit for plug-in buyers; the House is to take up a similar energy measure before this Friday's currently-scheduled recess.
Another issue: the answers aren't all in yet on developing lithium ion batteries needed for plug-ins. Representing what they say is a small but crucial part of overall plug-in vehicle development costs, automakers are lobbying Congress to actually fund $25 billion in loans for R&D work on plug-ins, authorized in an earlier energy bill. (UPDATE, 9/25/08: The U.S. House has approved the loans and the Senate is expected to follow).
Plenty for free-marketeers and corporate critics to choke on there. But as Time's Walsh notes:
...even with infrastructure improvements, the shift to electric cars is likely to take years, even decades. According to Alan Madian, a director at the research firm LECG, even assuming solid growth, we can't expect more than 68 million plug-in hybrids by 2036, which would account for less than 17% of the total estimated fleet at that time. Given that the U.S. car fleet is likely to have grown to over 400 million vehicles by then, we may still end up using more oil in the future than we do today in a business as usual scenario. That's all the more reason for the government to get ahead of the curve and begin piecing together the electric infrastructure -- smart meters, public charging points, more renewable power -- that will speed the adoption of plug-ins. "A car affects the world more than anything else a buyer will purchase in his or her lifetime," says Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a plug-in advocacy group in Palo Alto, Calif. Plug-ins can turn the car from a force for environmental destruction to something that frees us from oil -- but only if we make it happen.
More public transit, employer transit, smart-networked ride-sharing, and telecommuting, plus smart-networked shipping that maximizes use of all available cargo space on long-haul freight trucks will be crucial if surface transportation is to limit its environmental footprint, and road congestion is to be controlled as population and employment grow. Exponential improvements to the country's freight rail and inter-city passenger rail networks are also key.
Nonetheless, the nation's vehicle fleet will remain vast, and so the need for clean electric vehicle fuel and net-green biofuels will only grow. What and how we drive will become vastly different, the only question is how soon and how thoroughly.
"Cascadia Center's 'Beyond Oil' Conference: A Wrap-up," Bruce Agnew, Cascadia Prospectus.
Full archive of blog posts on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, Cascadia Prospectus (various authors).