Not All Hybrids Are Created Equal

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles may get you 100 miles per gallon, but where did those extra miles come from? What about the larger batteries needed? How does the return on investment change? A new study released last week by ACEEE (American Council for Energy Efficient Economy) compares your typical hybrid to one you can recharge at home. The study indicates that 'plug-in' hybrids may not offer the benefits a buyer expects. We highlight what you should consider before jumping to the plug-in option. Bigger Batteries and the ROI
Size matters. The batteries needed for creating a plug-in version are heavier, larger, and cost more money. The study identified that the batteries needed for a plug-in are commercially and technologically viable for a 40 mile ride. The return on investment creeps up as the batteries get larger and the study indicated that beyond the 40 mile commute, not only is the technology not yet available, the cost would be prohibitive. Rich Clabaugh at The Christian Science Monitor has made a great pop-up image on the ROI:

But, optimists can point to the ever-increasing innovation in battery technology. Careful readers will note that if certain battery technologies (EEStor) come to market it could revolutionize the auto industry. Although a revolutionary product like that might just skip over hybrid technology altogether, a likely scenario may involve various test beds in hybrid design. In short, the large batteries needed are the Achilles heel of the plug in technology- if they become cheaper the car makes excellent economic sense, if they remain expensive then the price point simply doesn't compute. Although most will agree with me here that money isn't everything.

Central Energy Generation
Where is the energy generated? Plugging in your hybrid is like having someone else pee in the river for you. The energy is generated somewhere, and unless you know where and how that power is generated and transferred, it could be better or worse for the environment then just buying gas. The easiest solution here is to buy sustainable energy, or produce it yourself. Plugging in would lower your gas expense and your pollution. Also, even if it is not a sustainable energy source, having energy generation and pollution at one point makes it potentially easier to craft controls to limit and mitigate the associated costs. Thus, if you think energy generation will become cleaner in the near future, or if you have available clean energy, then the plug-in might just be the way to go. But remember to think about who is peeing in your neck of the woods.

Attributes of the Grid
Connecting your plug-in to the grid can have ancillary benefits. By creating a large contingent of garage plug-ins the local power utilities might make it possible for your car to act as a regulator to balance the energy load in your area. This could kick a few extra green backs into your pocket, the drawback is that it would be highly dependent on local power utilities willing to pay for this service. Also, by having such large batteries on hand when the grid goes down, you have some emergency juice. As severe weather tends to increase, the predictability of power has come into question and having some spare energy from your auto might come in handy. Lastly, we have reported before, new technology begets new technology, and creative solutions will likely abound for using and developing this new resource.

CO2 emissions
Speaking of changing climate, CO2 has received a lot of attention. Assuming you are an average American, if you use a plug in hybrid car with a 40 mile range, then you will emit about 15% less CO2 then a normal hybrid. If you live in an area where power generation is already low carbon (say...near a hydro-electric plant, wind, wave etc…) the CO2 emissions will be considerably lower. But if you live near one of the increasingly common coal fired power plants, you could actually be emitting more CO2.

In short, the technology has legs. As long as battery prices continue to drop, gasoline prices continue to rise, and CO2 is an issue, the plug-in vehicle has a bright future. It might not be a giant leap for vehicle kind, but it certainly is a step in the right direction. ::ACEEE via ::CSM

Best of TreeHugger