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Tilting at Windmills

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January 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PLUG-IN HYBRIDS....Sure, plug-in hybrids are a bridge technology. But it's an awfully long bridge, so I'm a big fan anyway. Brad Plumer explains why in 500 words or less here. Joseph Romm has the longer version here.

UPDATE: More from Romm here.

Kevin Drum 6:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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Where's the press on the car that runs on air? Now that is revolutionary, and they have working prototypes already. Here is a youtube look.

Posted by: Mateo on January 22, 2008 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

I can verify that the technology to plug your car in at off peak hours and then feed back excess electricity to the grid when it is needed, is well on its way to final development.

Posted by: optical weenie on January 22, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

Why are the Prius, current hybrids and plug in hybrids all incredibly important and worth supporting now, even if not cost effective?

Because they move the refinement of the following three technologies along:

1. Electric motors.

2. Electric batteries.

3. Regenerative braking mechanisms for capturing and reusing electricity.

Whether the ultimate fuel source is electric or hydrogen fuel cell, you need these three components to make them efficient and cost effective.

Electricity allows use of multiple fuel sources, whether coal, nuclear, gas, etc.


Posted by: Mardg on January 22, 2008 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not trying to be a smartass here, but I've always wondered; with plug-in hybrids, aren't you just moving the emissions from the tailpipe to the generating plant? And if in, say, Southern California, everyone comes home at night and plugs in their car, how can you not need to add a shitload of generating capacity?

Posted by: thersites on January 22, 2008 at 7:43 PM | PERMALINK

I have the same question as Thersites, except I would add the environmental damage of battery manufacturing and disposal. That's not small, especially if the batteries are made in China or someplace else with hardly any environmental controls.

Posted by: The Fabulous Mr. Toad on January 22, 2008 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

I agree, Mardg. In addition, development of technology for managing 60,000 watts of power in a mass-produced box less than a cubic foot in size is a significant accomplishment.

Posted by: idlemind on January 22, 2008 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

Afterthought: Thersites, a partial answer to your question about adding generating capacity is off-peak load. You don't have to add plants, you just have to use the plants you have to put power on the grid at off-peak times. Still, you're burning fuel to do it, so there's that.

Posted by: The Fabulous Mr. Toad on January 22, 2008 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

Theoretically, it's easier to clean up emissions from a few large fixed sources than millions of small mobile sources. Carbon sequestration isn't ever going to be feasible for automobiles, but it might be for power plants. But I share a sense of cynicism as to whether carbon sequestration will actually be widely deployed even if found feasible.

Posted by: idlemind on January 22, 2008 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK

Sigh ... I liked the TNR blog, but there is a glaring error stated in the comments which no one has picked up on (and only TNR magazine subscribers are able to post comments? What a $%*(& stupid idea!) ...

"Coal generates more CO2 per unit of energy generated than pertroleum. Like diamond, graphite, and chimney soot, coal is essentially pure carbon. Each carbon atom is bonded to another carbon atom in its crystaline structure: -C-C-C-. Petroleum is a HYDROcarbon."

The distinction is incorrect. They are both hydrocarbons (or, rather, primarily composed of multiple different varieties of hydrocarbons).

By my memory, and as noted in the following page, coal is indeed a HYDROcarbon, containing multiple different long-chain molecules composed of H, C, and O primarily, where the H/C ratio seems to tend towards around 1.5 (ie, for two Carbon atoms you'll tend to have 3 Hydrogens attached), which isn't all that different than your standard mixes of gasoline.

The PROBLEM with coal is that it is highly impure, and tends to not break down efficiently (yielding CO and SO's and NO's instead of very high concentrations of CO2 + H2O).

Posted by: Tom Dibble on January 22, 2008 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

thersites: I'm not trying to be a smartass here, but I've always wondered; with plug-in hybrids, aren't you just moving the emissions from the tailpipe to the generating plant?

No. The main reason is that power plants, including coal fired ones, are vastly more efficient than the internal combustion engines used in cars (IIRC something like 40% vs. 10%). So even when you factor in electric power line losses, battery charging losses, efficiency of the car's electric motor, higher carbon content of coal vs. oil, etc. you would emit less CO2 w/ an electric car even if all its electricity came from coal fired plants.

To boot, not all electricity comes from coal fired plants, and recharging electrics is a good use of variable output generation like solar and wind.

Posted by: alex on January 22, 2008 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK

Those of you that want to follow the details of "green transportation" might want to add this blog to your daily browsing habits; beware that they really get out "into the weeds" but in a very educational way.

"We are accustomed to the new land yet attached to the old country" - anon

Posted by: daCascadian on January 22, 2008 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but can you get the darned things? We were out of the country in 2006-7, and planned to buy one when we returned, since back in late 2005 I remember reading that they were about a year off being widely available (I know you can get conversion kits, but I don't want to mess with that). Yet here it is 2007 and as far as I know I still can't walk into a dealer and buy one. Why not? They're perfect for the kind of dinking around town driving that's the huge majority of what I do. A couple of solar panels on the garage roof and I'm totally clean.

Posted by: Clara on January 22, 2008 at 8:59 PM | PERMALINK

Alex is right, although I think the internal combustion engine is more like 15-20% efficient. But studies have shown that it is a net win emissions wise, even if the electric power is generated from coal. There is additional substantial inefficiency for the ICE due to the significant energy involved in transporting and refining the oil into gasoline.

So far battery technology has been holding back plugins. A few models are supposed to be introduced in the 2010 model year. The hightech batteries for these cars are recyclable, so with correct lifecycle use the battery based pollution issues shouldn't be bad. Most proposed batteries are LithiumIon, although there are major developments in the performance and lifetimes of leadacid batteries as well. I suspect that about the time plugins become widely available (say 2015) photovoltaic car roofs may become economical -even though a day of sunshine will probably only provide enough juice for 5-10miles.

Posted by: bigTom on January 22, 2008 at 9:00 PM | PERMALINK

As long as a plug in can go 500 miles/day at 80 or so I am fine with it. Hopefully it will recharge as I sleep. So I can do it all over again. And maybe the hotels will have outlets :)

Posted by: veloer on January 22, 2008 at 9:25 PM | PERMALINK

Here is an interview with Louis Arnoux, Mateo, of IT-MDI about the air-car, which is a misnomer. [It will butn gas, diesel, grapeseed oil, ethanol, vegetable oil,etc etc]

Posted by: Ya Know.... on January 22, 2008 at 9:34 PM | PERMALINK

Cars are in incredibly inefficient for a whole other reason: they waste space. We are clogging our cities and streetscapes with cars that would be better served through mass transit, which holds a whole lot more people per square foot. I'm an avowed urbanist -- so the more people that are walking, biking and taking transit, combined with urban limit lines and higher density and incentives to build on brown fields (and disincentives to build on green) are the only way to solve the environmental crisis (energy, pollution, loss of farmland) and simultaneously improve quality of life.

Posted by: Inaudible Nonsense on January 22, 2008 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

Theoretically, it's easier to clean up emissions from a few large fixed sources than millions of small mobile sources. Carbon sequestration isn't ever going to be feasible for automobiles, but it might be for power plants... idlemind

Yes. I think it would FAR better to aggressively pursue carbon sequestration technology HERE and use our coal resources for plug-in hybrids rather than export our coal to India or China (i.e.), where it isn't going to be sequestered. Many folks aren't thinking about how exports of hydrocarbons to 3rd world countries are going to be utilized at the destination.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on January 22, 2008 at 9:51 PM | PERMALINK

YaKnow: The Oil Drum's discussion of the air car is a good one. If I may be so presumptuous as to paraphrase:
many commenters are very suspicious of this product/company.
for thermodynamic reasons the efficiency of energy storage in the cars compressed air tank must be poor (say 10-20%).
They may or may not have a pretty cool engine to charge it with.

Posted by: bigTom on January 22, 2008 at 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations seem to show that if we gave interest free 20 year loans to install photovoltaic panels on their roofs, homeowners in places with a fair amount of sunshine would pay roughly the same per month as they do for gasoline if they drive an average of 25 to 50 miles per day (fairly typical commuter distances). Of course, most people would be plugging in at night when the sun isn't shining, but during the day that the power generated by the photovoltaics on the roof would reduce the amount of carbon fuels that would need to be burned by an amount probably roughly equivalent to that which would have been used for commuting; IOW, the net production of carbon dioxide would be close to what it would be if the car ran off electricity directly coming from the roof panels - very, very little. The "solar" panels would indirectly be powering the plug-in hybrid (which could still run on carbon fuels on those occasions when it might be needed).

Posted by: TK on January 22, 2008 at 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

I guess I should have added that the excess electricity produced by the panels during the day would be sent "backwards" through the power lines reducing the demand on the conventional power plants - thus reducing the necessity to burn fuels that produce carbon dioxide.

Posted by: Ted King on January 22, 2008 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

My portable DVD player would play a full movie for the first month, and afterwards only about 3/4 of a movie, using about the best rechargeable batteries available, Li ion. Wait till you have to replace your big car battery.

Posted by: Luther on January 22, 2008 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

My standard gripe with this sort of thing is that once you consider a future, limited-range automobile, you invite comparisons with an available-now, somewhat-limited-range bicycle. Cargo bicycles with electric assist and passenger/load carrying ability are available now, for a fraction of what this car will cost. The commute range of an unassisted bicycle (powered by an overweight, middle-aged man with a bad attitude) is 20 round-trip miles, so an assisted bicycle might well hit 30 miles, which substantially overlaps the intended range of these rechargeable vehicles.

The problem with cars is that you have to move the steel cage. The steel cage does a good job of protecting from collisions with other cars, but a poor job of protecting you from the larger (in terms of years of life lost) risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. For a single commuter, the total weight of a loaded e-assist bicycle is under 300 lbs, where the loaded car is more likely to weigh 1800 lbs or more. Ignoring all other losses (rolling resistance, in particular) and ignoring any human inputs (necessary to get protection from diseases of the unfit) the regenerative braking would need to be more than 83% efficient in order to compete with the lighter bicycle that simply "wasted" its energy with friction brakes. If the human contributes half the energy, then the regenerative system has to beat 91% efficiency. If the bicycle e-assist has a regenerative system of minor efficiency, game over. It's also very unlikely that a car can match the rolling resistance of a bicycle with quality wheels and tires.

The other failure of cars is their inhuman scale. An experienced cyclist can maintain a bicycle indefinitely with a small box of tools, and no special lifts or other heavy equipment. You can't even change a car's tire without a special jack to lift it up. No truck is required to tow a disabled bicycle out of traffic or out of a snow bank; anyone, with no skill whatsoever, can haul the bike out on their own. If the bike needs transport beyond its usual range, it fits on the front of busses, in subways, in trains, or (with 15 minutes work and a box or bag) in an airplane. You can even tow a bike behind a bike. Not true of cars.

And yeah, i know, clueless biker rant, knows nothing about the "real" world, but I'm doing it, and unless you're disabled, you could too, at least a couple times a week (like I do), hauling a kid to school (like I do), hauling 100 lbs of groceries (like I do), riding in the Boston winter (like I do). I lost 20 lbs, knocked maybe 5 points off my blood pressure, boosted my HDL, lowered my LDL, lowered my triglycerides, and sucked in my gut a few inches. It's entirely possible, and you can do it today, without waiting for one of these pie-in-the-sky-real-soon-now-when-pigs-fly industry breakthroughs. The main difference between my bike promotion, and the rechargeable/hybrid/hydrogen/whatever car promotion, is that I'm not trying to sell you something, and I won't make any money at this. We've got big problems, they're getting bigger, and our car-addiction is the cause of many of them. If we could use cars as little as possible, we'd be healthier (not that anyone is complaining about medical costs, oh no), we'd send less money out of the country (debt problem? what debt problem?), and we'd send less money to Saudi Arabia (home country of Bin Ladin and most of the 9/11 terrorists) and Iran (1/3 of the alleged axle of evil). And you don't need to wait for some techno-car charlatan to sell a solution; you can start tomorrow, using a bike for one-mile trips, building up to 2-mile trips, then 3, 4, 5, and beyond.

Posted by: dr2chase on January 22, 2008 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

veloer: As long as a plug in can go 500 miles/day at 80 or so I am fine with it.

We already have a prototype of such a vehicle - what we're working on now is the extension cord.

Posted by: alex on January 22, 2008 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

dr2chase: riding in the Boston winter (like I do).
Damn! Ruined my snappy comeback.

Posted by: thersites on January 22, 2008 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

The AirCar seems to have several limitations. Per Wiki, one is that most are microcar size; the second is that power decreases as more of the compressed air is used. In essence, you have to "fill up" at half empty.

Romm's book The Hype about Hydrogen is THE book to read on why the bridge to a fuel cell car may not just be long but almost nonexistent.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 23, 2008 at 12:21 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, per the GreenCarCongress website (info which I already knew), don't you love how GM has been making hybrid buses for years but can't be bothered to trot out a hybrid car?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 23, 2008 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

What about the new pressurized-air cars from India? Don't you want cars that don't have fumes or exhaust? Too addicted to your big-ass hybrid SUV, are you?

Posted by: Anon on January 23, 2008 at 12:36 AM | PERMALINK

Inaudible Nonsense: Cars are in incredibly inefficient for a whole other reason...

I'd add that the infrastructure required to support them is enormous. Not just fuel... the resources devoted to roads and traffic control are enormous. I shudder every time I think of the amount of land, capital and operating costs consumed by roads. Or for that matter even a traffic light at a major intersection.

Even assuming a population of perfect individual vehicles--zero fuel cost, zero emissions, whatever--the cost of the infrastructure required to support them is disturbing--and at some point it will cease to scale. We really need a better way.

Posted by: has407 on January 23, 2008 at 1:32 AM | PERMALINK

Damn! Ruined my snappy comeback.

Three years ago, I would have bought into your snappy comeback. The intimidation of Boston traffic (and I still do not ride in Boston proper) and Boston winter had me mostly off my bike for about ten years. I got back on for health reasons (and this damn oil war), and it worked in a really big way (didn't help the war much), and I started looking for ways to keep going through the winter. Studded tires, warm tights (cycling in flannel-lined jeans, not so good), good gloves, balaclava, a wind block, and lots of lights, and away you go.

There are people who make a point of NOT riding in tights and other funny clothes, but if you are going to change when you get to work, you might as well ride as comfortably and efficiently as possible.

We're signing up for some really ridiculous stunts, all so we can preserve our right to get fat in cars, and I think we really need to reconsider how much time we spend in cars. Yelling at people doesn't convince them; I'm hoping a "look, I can do it, you can too" approach will be more effective. The number one biggest problem is (perceived) safety; careless people in cars can hurt you, there is no arguing that, and explaining all the ways to minimize that risk and feel safe (minimizing risk is not the same as feeling safe) is a whole other story.

Posted by: dr2chase on January 23, 2008 at 7:43 AM | PERMALINK

Totally missing from all this talk about electric or compressed air cars are the topics of the heater and the air conditioner.

Use either of those (or both when the defroster is on) and you've clobbered your efficiency.

The hybrid hype in MN was shattered when people realized how much of the time they needed either the heater or the air-conditioner. At they point they become simply a high-efficient gasoline engine.

Posted by: Tripp on January 23, 2008 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

I still see a lot of people trying to figure out how we can keep the Happy Motoring Culture going on forever and ever. Somehow I think we're going to be forced to do some pretty drastic downsizing instead.

Posted by: Brainwashed on January 23, 2008 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

One word, Drum: Motorcycles and scooters!
We don't need to develope them, they are already at an exquisite stage of developement.
The only problem could be a shortage of suitable black leather for jackets.

Posted by: Mooser on January 23, 2008 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Brainwashed is right. Even a super-efficient car is not a long-term solution.

I'm kinda stuck with the car commute right now but given an alternative I would love it. In a previous life I spent an hour and a half a day on busses, and walked 1.5 miles each way at the end of the bus ride. I was one healthy bastard and I got a lot more reading done.

Posted by: thersites on January 23, 2008 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

Joseph Romm writes: "Practical, affordable plug-in hybrids will be here in a few years -- even if we don't get a technology breakthrough in batteries."

In fact we have got a technology breakthrough in batteries:

12/11/2007: Toshiba Corporation today announced the commercial launch of the SCiB -- the Super Charge ion Battery -- a breakthrough rechargeable battery primarily targeting the industrial systems market that can recharge to 90% of full capacity in less than five minutes. The battery offers excellent safety and a long-life cycle of over 10 years, even under conditions of constant rapid charging. Toshiba aims to make this high potential battery a mainstay of its industrial systems and automotive products businesses, with global sales of 100 billion yen targeted for fiscal year 2015. The first SCiB will be shipped from March 2008.


In addition to applications that include battery-powered bicycles, motorcycles, automated guided vehicles, electric forklift trucks and construction machinery, which already use rechargeable batteries, the SCiB is also a promising candidate for emergency power sources, electric power regeneration in wind power systems and stabilization of electric power supply. Application in hybrid cars is also planned, with the intent of extending application to electric cars in the future, after advancing development of a high-performance SCiB cell.

SCiB Major Characteristics
1. Excellent safety: SCiB adopts a new negative-electrode material that offers a high level of thermal stability and a high flash point electrolyte, and has a structure resistant to internal short circuiting and thermal runaway. The possibility of rupture or combustion is very low.

2. Long-life cycle: Capacity loss after 3,000 cycles of rapid charge and discharge is less than 10%. SCiB has an excellent long lifecycle, and is able to repeat the charge-discharge cycle over 5,000 times. This means that the SCiB can be continuously used for more than 10 years with a once-a-day recharge-discharge cycle.

3. Rapidly rechargeable: The superb safety characteristics of SCiB allow recharge with a current as large as 50 amperes (A), allowing the SCiB Cell and SCiB Standard Module to recharge to 90% of full capacity in only five minutes.

4. High power (practical capacity): The SCiB has an input-output performance equivalent to that of an electric double layer capacitor. This feature is suited to high power applications.

5. Temperature: SCiB operates well in temperature extremes, with sufficient discharge at temperatures as low as -30°C. This characteristic also assures wide application in cold climates.

The primary obstacle to widespread deployment of pluggable-hybrid and pure electric vehicles is not technological, it is institutional. Namely, the fossil fuel corporations and the big US automobile corporations don't want this to happen.

Pure electric vehicles would drastically change the automobile manufacturing industry. Electric vehicles would be more like personal computers than present-day cars: modular designs using industry-standard form factors and interfaces, assembled from off-the-shelf interchangeable components from a variety of manufacturers. You would be able to upgrade your electric car with new technology as it emerges, swapping out the battery for lighter, higher capacity batteries, swapping out the electric motor for a lighter, higher efficiency motor, much as computer hard drives or memory can be upgraded (albeit with a bit more heavy lifting).

Like personal computers, electric cars would eventually become dirt-cheap commodity items while at the same time their performance would steadily improve.

Moreover, electric cars require near zero maintenance, so the entire infrastructure of automobile repair and maintenance would mostly go away. Whatever maintenance was needed would be accomplished, as with computers, by simply swapping out modular parts.

The auto industry does not want this transformation to occur because it makes their entire business model obsolete.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 23, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

To follow up on what Alex said, cars do have a thermal efficiency of 10-15% (diesels are a bit higher) while coal plants run around 40%. There are new natural gas powered combined gas turbine/steam plants that can break 60%.

It is much easier to control emissions from a large fixed site plant. There is no weight or size limit on the emission control equipment. The fact that a fixed site plant runs continually is a huge advantage; a lot of the pollution from cars occurs under cold startup in the minute or two it takes the catalytic converter to warm up.

With electric cars the air conditioning/heating thing is a serious problem, with hybrids not quite as much. The engine really doesn’t need to run full time to provide enough waste heat for the heater, while some of the newer hybrids include an electrically driven AC which can run while the engine is off. In any case the battery boost still allows the car to get by with a smaller internal combustion engine, which is the source of much of the hybrids superior efficiency. Minnesota grade winters are still an issue - most batteries loose their oomph when it gets cold (a fact I experienced regularly every winter when I lived in Minnesota).

Posted by: fafner1 on January 23, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK


Thanks for the link. It looks like the SCiB might be the real deal. This is good news.

I'm not quite as pessimistic as you are about the auto industry. If this is the real deal there will be no stopping it.

Posted by: Tripp on January 23, 2008 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK



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