The TH Interview: Roger Duncan, Plug-in Partners

Roger Duncan serves as the Campaign Coordinator for Plug-in Partners, a national campaign for plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) striving to demonstrate clearly the viability of this market by doing the following: garnering support in the form of online petitions and endorsements by city governments across the country; procuring "soft" fleet orders; and developing rebates and incentives. TreeHugger's Eckhart Beatty recently had the chance to chat with Mr. Duncan about plug-ins and the future of automotive transportation.

TreeHugger: Why was Plug-in Partners founded in Austin, Texas?

Roger Duncan: As one of the more progressive utilities in the nation, Austin Energy has long led the nation in energy conservation. I was asked to see what else we could be doing in the area of clean energy, and I told the City Council we should start a new initiative in the transportation sector since I saw an eventual convergence between the electric and transportation industries. In my capacity as a manager we might be able to take advantage of the abundance of wind and solar potential to power cars. Soon we began seeing a convergence between the electric and transportation industries. So in August of 2005, we founded Plug-In Austin. We realized from the beginning what we really had to do was to link similar ongoing efforts taking place across the country. We started by targeting the 50 largest cities in the U.S. Now we have members from utilities, environmental groups, businesses, as well as many other federal, state, and local organizations.

I had originally heard of the efforts of Felix Kramer and CalCars, Electric Power Research Institute EPRI, and Andy Frank, a UC Davis professor at who invented the plug-in technology some 30 years ago.

TH: What's the most important thing you want the average individual to know about plug-ins?

RD: They are very energy efficient, cleaner, and cheaper to operate.

TH: What's the most efficient way of getting the most people to understand their importance in the shortest possible time?

RD: Invite folks to visit the website Plug-In Partners and recommend they sign up for the newsletter. Consider working with the media, as well getting promotions for us.

TH: If Proposition 87 had passed in CA, what would it have meant for the future of PHEVs?

RD: I really don't know much about it. I'm not a big fan of initiatives. This one could only stand to help, though. It could well stand to buttress the campaigns of lots of alternative energy technologies—as well as ours.

TH: What would you recommend that everyone who doesn't live in California do in this regard? For instance, would similar initiatives be feasible in other states like Texas, as well?

RD: It (an initiative like California's 87 ballot measure) probably wouldn't occur in TX. I'm less interested in (proposing) legislation than in demonstrating a market for PHEVs.

TH: Are all hybrid designs the same—or are some different?

RD: There are different varieties. There's the serial, the parallel—and then the hydraulic (a protoype still). Although, principal variations in designs relate to battery design such as Nickel-Metal Hydride versus Lithium Ion, there are other differences in the size of the battery compared to the engine (with some new ones proposing smaller gas engines and larger electric motors).

Andy Frank: "Just as in the case of any emerging product or technology, there are many ways to implement PHEV technology, optimize for various factors and conditions. We're looking forward to sorting this out when car-makers begin building PHEVs." [Mr. Frank is the inventor of the PHEV.]*

TH: What is the longevity of battery systems compared to 100% electric cars?

RD: They may be more powerful per unit mass than the batteries in non-hybrids, but less powerful than pure electric cars. Also, plug-ins require a deep discharge of their batteries, whereas fully electric cars don't need to discharge the batteries as much.

AF: "While the price/performance ratio of pure electric cars may match or exceed that of PHEVs, it's not likely. I'll bet on the PHEV staying as the ultimate end game for the remainder of the century," he said. "Lithium is coming up fast and will definitely take over the Metal Hydride in power, weight, life, size, and costs," he concluded.*

TH: By their nature, cars are somewhat "disposable," to be replaced by a new model on average every seven years—or less! Is "planned obsolescence" addressed better by plug-ins, in addition to their superior efficiency?

RD: Not really. Cars stay on the road an average of 16 years. It's unlikely this figure will decline sharply any time soon.*

TH: Could factory-built plug-ins be made to be "upgradable" with respect to engine designs (for a few years going forward so they won't become outdated like the first generation Prius did)?

AF: "Not really. As cars become more computer-oriented and more telemetric, possibilities for upgraded systems increase. Most products get better over time—no surprise there."

According to Dr. Frank, although "upgrading is always possible," with upgraded parts becoming interchangeable, "you may be flogging a dead horse for a long time." He concludes by predicting, "The technology of these systems will change very fast and may not stabilize for many years—if ever!"

TH: Bush has backed plug-ins. How helpful has all the political rhetoric been so far?

RD: He "gets it," and his support has been helpful. The Department of Energy is now conducting serious discussions, and a new initiative has been launched within its R&D; arm.

TH: What are some ways the Partnership could be strengthened?

RD: It's actually moving faster than we can keep up with.

TH: Does the association have growth plans?

RD: Yes. We're starting to approach more corporations. Some notable examples of these and other large organizations are P.G.&E.;, Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Consumer Federation of America (with over 100 million members)..

TH: What's the minimum number of cars in a fleet needed for a "soft order"?

RD: We consider four to five as the minimum, but may consider fewer. It's called a "soft" order to signify simply an intent to built, since they haven't been mass-produced yet; it is not an actual purchase order--yet. Also, they can't be built on speculation, due to the matter of expense.

TH: With all the good news that came regarding PHEVs this year, what are the biggest hurdles in our way to getting them mass-produced?

RD: Only certain kinds of cars manufactures would seriously consider it for particular models.

TH: What's the latest word on the largest car manufacturers warming up to the idea of producing PHEVs?

RD: Ford and GM have both begun focusing on PHEV initiatives. Initially, they had expressed resistance and uncertainty. The bottom line is they are still researching them. Nissan will develop one—perhaps by 2010.

TH: What does Google really intend to do when it says it "wants to build a plug-in"? Would it support CalCars, Edrive Systems, Energy, CS etc. to do this—or exactly what?

RD: It's true we're engaged in discussions with Google, but I'm not at liberty to offer any details today.

TH: What are the largest companies and associations involved with the organization?

RD: P.G.&E.;, Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Consumer Federation of America (with over 100 million members).

TH: Who are some of the most noteworthy spokespersons of this idea?

RD: Hillary Clinton, Lester Brown, Orin Hatch, Jr., Barack Obama, George Pataki (Gov. NY), George Schulz, R. James Woolsey (former Director of CIA). Plug-in Partners maintains a list of partners.

TH: What can we do as consumers to get them to do so?

RD: They should visit the Plug-In Partners website: sign up, spread the word, and put in a fleet order if applicable to their business.

TH: What about the notion of the PHEV plugging into a grid concept? Where is that idea today?

RD: True, it's an interesting idea, and I believe it will happen, but it will be years before it will have significant import, since millions of cars are needed to make an impact.

TH: If you lived in remote area, could you set up your PHEV to power your home during blackouts?

RD: Yes. Toyota recently built a prototype that would allow people to generate electricity at 13kW and 120 volts. This would be especially useful for those living off the grid.

TH: What is your impression of companies' individual commitments to grappling with the issues of PHEVs?

RD: Yes, I think they will remain committed for the long haul.

TH: If everyone who reads this interview could do just one thing a week to help promote the future of plug-ins as a proven viable alternative to fossil fuels, what should it be?

RD: They should visit the website, sign up, and consider getting involved in our work.::

*Note: I am grateful to Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars and Dr. Andy Frank for help with some of these answers.::

Tags: Austin | TH Interview

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