Hybrid Vehicles
Electric Vehicles: The Next Generation

By Joe Romm
July 10, 2008

The price of oil and gasoline is now out of the hands of US consumers and OPEC
suppliers. Indeed, when Saudi Arabia announced over the past two months that it
would add 500,000 barrels of oil a day in new capacity by the end of the year,
the oil markets shrugged.

A recent CIBC report says we could see $7 gasoline by 2010, along with 1970s
style stagflation. Who knows what we face in the coming decades as the number of
cars in the world double?

Cellulosic ethanol is an important low-carbon alternative fuel for sure. But
given future constraints on arable land and water from population growth and
climate change, it seems unlikely to be available in sufficient quantity to
lower the price of oil in the face of steadily rising demand from countries like
India and China. That means it is likely to be sold at whatever price gasoline
is. The same is, of course, true of whatever small amounts of oil we might find
from offshore drilling or in Alaska, assuming politicians pursue that pointless
polluting policy.

Only one alternative fuel can significantly lower the annual fuel bill of U.S.
consumers while at the same time significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions
-- electricity. It has a per-mile fuel cost about one fifth that of gasoline at
current prices even when made from carbon-free sources.

Toyota, General Motors, and Volkswagen have already said they will introduce
plug-in hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles to the U.S. market in 2010. These
vehicles are likely to have a 20 to 40 mile range running on electricity before
they revert to being a fuel-efficient hybrid running on gasoline or a biofuel
blend. That would allow most people to do most of their driving on electricity.

In the beginning, the cars may cost several thousand dollars more to build then
regular cars, but the extra cost to consumers will probably be far less for
several reasons. First, the next president is certain to institute a large tax
credit for plug ins. Second, I have already talked to two major energy-sector
companies that would like to own the battery and lease it to consumers. Third,
plug-ins will ultimately be charged at off-peak times and provide power and
voltage to the grid when needed; vehicle owners may be able to get a rebate or
revenue stream from electric utilities for this service. Finally, with more than
$1 billion a year of private sector money going into better battery technology,
and then economies of scale kicking in as more and more vehicles are produced,
the incremental cost of plug in technology will decline over time.

I expect that over the next decade, we will see dozens of models of affordable
plug ins that pay for their extra cost in under five years. The price of
gasoline is likely to be over $7 a gallon by that point, but at least consumers
will have a low-cost, clean alternative fuel that will shield them from the
whims of unstabler suppliers and insatiable global demand.

The other good news on the technology front is that we have more than enough
affordable sources of zero-carbon electricity to power the plug ins. Indeed,
when we have millions of plug ins hooked up to the electric grid, they will act
as a giant low-cost nighttime storage system for variable wind, which tends to
blow more at night.

Over the next two decades, energy efficiency, wind power, concentrated solar
thermal electric, and solar photovoltaic can provide all the added demand we
require while allowing us to steadily reduce total greenhouse gas emissions from
the electric and transportation sectors. But that will have to be the subject of
a later post.

[Note: Some have criticized the Shell sponsorship of this blog. But Shell exerts
no editorial control, so I'll let others lose sleep over this. Personally, while
I once admired Shell, especially their strategic planning about global warming
and renewable energy, their pursuit of tar sands and, even worse, oil shale,
makes clear they are simply another short-term-profit-maximizing
long-term-climate-destroying oil company.]


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