Plug-Ins, EVs, and Consumer Power: an Interview with Paul Scott


Paul Scott makes illusions—he creates visual effects for the movies. But his fight to bring sustainable technology to the people is an epic unto itself. Scott has been instrumental in the "Don't Crush" campaign that has fought (and won) against big automakers to keep electric vehicles on the road. He helped bring a feature film about electric cars to Sundance, and is co-founder of Plug In America, an alliance of green car advocates. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on the future of plug-ins, electric vehicles, and how people can get the cars they want.

TreeHugger: By now, people are starting to catch on to what plug-in hybrids are all about. What's their significance and what will their evolution be?

Paul Scott: The significance of plug-ins is that they combine the best of two technologies. First, as most folks know, hybrids combine an electric motor with a small gas or diesel engine so that the electric power assists the internal combustion engine (ICE) allowing for more efficiency. Since electric motors are by far more efficient than ICE, the more electric power you use to move your car, the more efficient your driving will be.Therefore, it makes sense to add more batteries to a regular hybrid so that the car can be driven as an EV for a reasonable distance. Since the vast majority of Americans drive less than 40 miles each day, a battery pack big enough to hold about 10 kWh of power could suffice for a large majority of our daily driving. You simply plug the car in to a 120V socket while you sleep.

If you needed to drive further than the battery could take you, the ICE would kick in seamlessly and you would then drive on gas or diesel.

TH: I know there are some critics out there of the plug-in. What's their argument and how do you respond?

There really aren't any critics of the PHEV. Toyota has admitted they are working on the concept, but since several engineers have already modified the Prius in their garages, and kits are being developed to bring this technology to the market, we know Toyota is merely biding their time before launching PHEVs. They are probably waiting for the results of tests on the new Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries so they are satisfied about the longevity. The power to weight ratio is very good, but longevity is also important. So far, it looks very good.

The batteries in all of the current hybrids are called Nickel Metal Hydride. This is a very good battery chemistry and has proven to outlast the cars themselves with ranges over 150,000 miles. However, they weigh more, so everyone is looking at Li-Ion for the PHEV since the battery needs to be bigger.

The only argument against PHEVs is the cost of the batteries. They are dropping in price fast, however, and it is already very clear that if made in large quantities, the price would be cost effective today.

What is important to understand is that the federal government gives billions of dollars to the oil companies every year to subsidize that industry. If the tax money now going to the oil companies were instead used to subsidize part of the cost of the batteries, we could easily market millions of EVs and PHEVs.

It is a question of priorities.

TH: What are the major obstacles to the widespread adoption of plug-ins on the horizon?

PS: The only obstacle is the lack of a carmaker willing to make them. If given the choice, the public will overwhelmingly choose the PHEV. If given the choice, most of them would overwhelmingly choose a pure battery EV. It's impossible to do this without product in the showroom.

TH: You just helped bring a film to Sundance. I hear it's a murder mystery. Can you tell us about it?

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" opens June 28th. This is a very well thought-out gem of a movie. As a documentary, it works well because the whole story about why EVs were made, and where they ended up, is laid bare in a very entertaining manner. The emotion expressed by the people who experienced this amazing technology comes through in their earnest desire to save the cars from the crusher and force the carmakers to make more.

The EV activists are very excited about the release of this film as it will tell the story we have been trying to get out for the past three years to a wide, receptive and hopefully, influential audience. It is our hope that folks get upset enough from what they learn that they join us in demanding these vehicles from the carmakers.

TH: What kind of car do you drive?

I was very lucky to acquire one of the few Toyota RAV4 EVs sold in 2002 and 2003. We didn't know the program was going to be dismantled and luckily bought one a week before they shut it down. We learned later that they intended to do this all along. The movie details this pretty well.

After Toyota stopped offering the EVs, they began to take back the vehicles as leases came due. Normally, the customer could just buy the vehicle, and most lessees tried. But, Toyota refused, took the cars back, and began crushing them. They destroyed several hundred in this way until we stopped them with protests.

There was $13,000 of federal and state tax money in each one of those cars. While Toyota had the legal right to destroy them, they did not have the moral right. It is absurd that any car company that calls itself "green" would do such a thing. But, Toyota was not alone in this crime. GM, Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Honda and Nissan were all guilty of doing the same thing. Of over 5,000 production EVs made, about 4,000 of them were destroyed. This in spite of standing offers to buy them.

(Crushed GM electric cars)
TH: What would an ideal transportation infrastructure look like to you? What are the most important steps in getting there?

Because electric power is the most efficient, cleanest, quietest and most affordable energy for transportation, we will all be using it in the future. Energy from all sources is rising in cost very quickly, and the rate of increase is accelerating. As the true costs of oil, coal and nuclear power are gradually added to the price consumers pay, the public and commerce will act accordingly. They will choose that which costs them less.

Of course there are things that liquid fuels do very well, and long distance travel is one. However, petroleum based fuels, particularly those that are at risk strategically, will gradually be priced out of contention and locally produced ethanol and other bio fuels will take their place. This is where the PHEV really shines. For families that need to travel far on a regular basis, a mid sized PHEV SUV will do the trick fine, while being driven as an EV for most of its life. Any additional vehicles in the family would be pure EVs. If the car is not taken on long trips, there is no need to have an ICE involved.

The infrastructure is already built since the grid is everywhere we drive. Most folks will charge at home while they sleep using cheap off peak power. All of their energy money will stay local, most of it staying in their own pockets since buying electricity for your car is like buying gas for less than a dollar a gallon.

Many people will buy solar systems for their property as the investment pays 10% or better and you will be able to power your house and car with sunshine. Many Californians with EVs have been doing this for years.

TH: Anything else you'd like to add?

PS: I encourage your readers to see "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and spread the word. You will have to demand this technology since the carmakers are not going to offer it until you do. Call your local Toyota dealer and ask when the PHEV will be ready. Tell them you won't buy until they make one.