Plug-in cars are stingy on gas, but may strain the power grid

Original Article

Editor’s note: The Cascadia Center has written a series of articles examining the state’s infrastructure deficit. This is the second article of the series, which is being published exclusively by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Previously in this space, we argued that to stave off the threat of blackouts, Washington will likely have little choice but to build several fossil-fuel burning plants (“Leaders must act now to avoid a severe, regional energy crisis,” Nov. 18). Adding to this sense of urgency, otherwise desirable new transportation technologies — in particular, the plug-in electric hybrid vehicle — could shift our cars from oil to the power grid. Therefore, already rising demand for power will no doubt be taken to levels well beyond current utilities’ projections. If we’re serious about addressing possible human contributions to global warming, we need to be realistic about energy choices.

Drawing support from unlikely allies — from greens concerned about global warming to hawks hoping to cut the flow of petrodollars to radical Islamists — the plug-in hybrid is a promising new kind of car that can run on electricity for 20 to 40 miles before kicking into its fuel-burning engine.

Unlike the hybrids on the road today, which recharge from their gasoline engines, the plug-in can top off its batteries from the electric power grid. It can also run on clean-burning biodiesel rather than gasoline, making Washington — a leading proponent for turning agricultural products into biofuel — ideal for the plug-in hybrid market.

Though the payoff for our nation’s security would be enormous — in reduced economic vulnerability to Middle East turmoil and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina — moving our cars to the grid will require a lot more power generation. And with cars recharging their batteries from park-and-ride lots by day and garages by night, utilities won’t have much cushion time for maintenance of plants and transmission lines. Thus, for the next 20 years, we have no choice but to burn more fossil fuels in this region. But how do we do so in a way that avoids the release of millions more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?

This decision is closer than we may think. Some Seattle drivers are already waiting up to four months to purchase Toyota’s Prius hybrid. With the addition of a plug-in adapter kit, these cars could get up to 80 miles per gallon. Consumers will make the switch from standard hybrids to plug-ins once they understand that operating a car on electricity from the grid could allow them to go weeks between fill-ups in the city.

Given these hopeful trends, the only thing able to stop this national transition in its tracks would be higher consumer electricity prices, brought on by insufficient power supplies.

We are led, accordingly, to the subject of renewables. Wind and solar are attractive options, providing what’s called distributed energy by making power on a smaller scale, close to the user. Solar is obviously of limited worth here. Wind tends to attract more attention, but unsteady power production, along with location restrictions, limits its usefulness. Likewise, the burning of municipal solid waste (MSW) is a renewable, clean and reliable source of energy, but also one of limited use.

Another new technology, carbon sequestration, may offer some hope for a more climate-friendly use of fossil fuels. While the price of the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, natural gas, continues to climb due to a lack of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker terminals and declining domestic supplies, the United States still has several centuries’ supply of cheap coal.

With this in mind, BP and other energy heavyweights are experimenting with capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal plant emissions and pumping it into immense saltwater aquifers and abandoned oil fields deep underground. Tapped oil fields have held natural gas for millions of years, so geologists are confident that they could safely store billions of tons of CO2. The Earth’s oceans contain the vast bulk of the planet’s CO2, which comes from natural sources. In the future, it may prove feasible to bury it miles beneath the sea bed.

Finally, several countries (including France, Japan and China) are using emerging technologies to revive the nuclear power option. With a new generation of nuclear reactors designed to generate clean hydrogen fuel from water, it is time for our nation’s leaders to take a fresh look too. Some already have. Idaho’s U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has helped fund a minimal-waste, hydrogen-producing test reactor in his home state, which is scheduled to come online in 2017. On the downside, waste disposal and the production of plutonium, with its potential use in nuclear weapons, remain major concerns.

Here in Washington, an open-minded energy policy should be encouraged, rather than focusing excessively on any single renewable or fossil fuel source. This means that the governor and state Legislature should put all energy options on the table for discussion, and allow innovative new technologies to brighten our energy future.

BRUCE AGNEW is director and CHARLES GANSKE is a writer for the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, a nonprofit public policy center based in Seattle.

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 2017, Bruce has served as Director of the ACES NW Network based in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. The Network is dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in Northwest transportation for the movement of people and goods. ACES is co-chaired by Tom Alberg, Co-Founder and managing partner of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle and Bryan Mistele, CEO/Co-Founder of INRIX global technology in Kirkland. In 2022, Bruce became the director of the newly created Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Regional Infrastructure Accelerator. Initial funding for the Accelerator has come from the Build America Bureau of the USDOT. PNWER is a statutory public/private nonprofit created in 1991 by the U.S. states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan and the territories of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. PNWER has 16 cross-border working groups for common economic and environmental initiatives.