The Future Of PHEVs

Original Article

In the U.S., we depend on oil for 97 percent of all transportation, importing 60 percent of our oil, much of it coming from some of the least stable nations in the world. Burning oil for transportation creates 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Our Supreme Court, Congress, the White House and most Western governors have all signaled we must end our oil addiction [See “Current Commentary: Our energy future,” nwcurrent, May 2007]. There’s growing political recognition that one of the best approaches is flexible fuel, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).

PHEVs can achieve almost 100 miles per gallon, emit almost no greenhouse gases and help free America from foreign oil. Instead of $3.40 a gallon, owners in the Northwest could pay as little as the equivalent of 50 cents a gallon. Instead of foreign oil, a PHEV would run on Northwest electricity and biofuels. The day PHEVs begin rolling off assembly lines is coming sooner than most electric utility professionals expect.

Microsoft and the Cascadia Center for Regional Development of The Discovery Institute held a joint conference May 7 entitled “Jump Start To A Secure, Clean Energy Future,” at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus. Utility and government officials, researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs and auto industry executives led panel presentations to a capacity crowd of 325 on why PHEVs are coming soon — and the national security and environmental imperatives for accelerating their arrival.

Pioneers of PHEV technology, including Professor Andrew Frank and Felix Kramer, who helped develop the PHEV concept, attended last year’s conference. This year, the conference moved from concept to reality. Frank and Kramer were joined by Bill Reinert, Toyota’s chief U.S. engineer, and Nick Zielinski, GM’s chief engineer for the Chevy Volt. Toyota and GM have announced plans to launch PHEVs. GM has announced plans for developing a plug-in version of its hybrid Saturn Vue by 2009, and soon after, roll out its plug-in Chevy Volt. GM has teamed up with advanced battery maker A123 Systems, which just announced a rechargeable automotive lithium ion battery that is expected to last more than 10 years and 150,000 miles.

Reinert, in an unusually candid presentation, explained why Toyota is moving quickly toward electricity as an alternative fuel: World demand for oil from China and other emerging countries is placing a huge demand on oil at the same time peak oil production from easily (and cheaply) accessible sources is declining. While we may not run out of oil, it will become ever more expensive. In recent weeks, gas prices in the Northwest hit new record highs.

James Woolsey, former CIA Director for President Clinton, along with Anne Korin and Gal Luft of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security and U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert  (D-RI), summarized the compelling national security reasons for replacing foreign oil with domestic power. K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and University of Washington climatologist Phil Mote — a lead author of the UN’s Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change — presented the case for moving from oil to sustainable sources of transportation fuel in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Conference addressed several other key questions.

  • How can we connect PHEVs to the power grid in an optimal way to improve the efficiency of the grid; to better integrate intermittent wind power; and provide potential for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) services that could reduce the cost of the PHEVs? FERC Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff gave a keynote presentation on the “cash back hybrid,” which could be incorporated into a recent Executive Order to jump-start federal fleet purchases.
  • How do we integrate PHEVs into our transportation system using software intelligence, communication technology and other innovations to help get people to where they want to go faster, with better options than they currently have? David Horner of the U.S. Department of Transportation explained an urban partnership pilot program that the Northwest might be able to use to examine ways to accomplish this.
  • Can we launch a Northwest pilot project this year to explore how to best utilize PHEV technology to reduce our dependence on oil, improve transportation options and reduce urban congestion? Vic Parrish, CEO of Energy Northwest, described the board resolutions in support of a Northwest PHEV pilot project. Michael Kintner-Meyer of the Pacific Northwest National Lab and Bill Rogers of the Idaho National Laboratory detailed the support they could provide.

At the end of the day, the question was no longer whether we will replace most of our imported oil with domestic electricity and bio-fuels in transportation; the focus now is how best to do it. This effort will require regional cooperation, and a shared vision of the common good among utilities, government, business and consumers. The Northwest, with its clean, sustainable electric power grid and its history of cooperation, can be a leader in making this transformation as efficient as possible.

Steve Marshall is a senior fellow at the Cascadia Center for Regional Development. He is a former assistant general manager of power and transmission for the Snohomish County Public Utility District, and is immediate past chair of the Municipal League of King County.