December 11, 2006
Existing Electric Generators Could Power Pluggable Hybrid Cars

The coming wave of pluggable hybrid vehicles which can have their batteries recharged from home electric sockets can be recharged using existing electric power plants and transmission lines.

RICHLAND, Wash. If all the cars and light trucks in the nation switched from oil to electrons, idle capacity in the existing electric power system could generate most of the electricity consumed by plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. A new study for the Department of Energy finds that

Researchers at DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory also evaluated the impact of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, on foreign oil imports, the environment, electric utilities and the consumer.

"This is the first review of what the impacts would be of very high market penetrations of PHEVs, said Eric Lightner, of DOE's Office of Electric Delivery and Energy Reliability. "It's important to have this baseline knowledge as consumers are looking for more efficient vehicles, automakers are evaluating the market for PHEVs and battery manufacturers are working to improve battery life and performance."

The average commuting trip in the United States is 33 miles per day.

Current batteries for these cars can easily store the energy for driving the national average commute - about 33 miles round trip a day, so the study presumes that drivers would charge up overnight when demand for electricity is much lower.

Daily recharging would get old real fast. Every time you come home the need to plug the car into an electric socket would become an annoying chore. Plus,. some people do not live in places where this is practical. Say you live in an apartment building and park on the street or in a big lot. You may have no practical way to plug in your car. Even if you can plug in your car is that always practical? What about running an electric cable out to the car when it is raining? Works okay if you keep it in a garage. But most park their cars outside - including most who have car garages.

The areas which get their power from hydroelectric will need to build more coal or nuclear plants. Natural gas? North American production can't keep up with demand. More electric demand means more coal with smaller amounts of other types.

Researchers found, in the Midwest and East, there is sufficient off-peak generation, transmission and distribution capacity to provide for all of today's vehicles if they ran on batteries. However, in the West, and specifically the Pacific Northwest, there is limited extra electricity because of the large amount of hydroelectric generation that is already heavily utilized. Since more rain and snow can't be ordered, it's difficult to increase electricity production from the hydroelectric plants.

They didn't include nuclear plants because those operate around the clock supplying base electric demand.

"We were very conservative in looking at the idle capacity of power generation assets," said PNNL scientist Michael Kintner-Meyer. "The estimates didn't include hydro, renewables or nuclear plants. It also didn't include plants designed to meet peak demand because they don't operate continuously. We still found that across the country 84 percent of the additional electricity demand created by PHEVs could be met by idle generation capacity."

I suspect the power plants that are shut down at night have higher electric generation costs. So a shift toward using those power plants at night might raise electric costs for all purposes on average.

The coal-fired plants would emit more. But the reduction in gasoline burning might lead to a net reduction in carbon dioxide. However, a big decrease in US demand for oil would lower world prices and therefore lead to a greater demand for oil for other purposes. So I'm not as optimistic when looking at this path from a global level.

The study also looked at the impact on the environment of an all-out move to PHEVs. The added electricity would come from a combination of coal-fired and natural gas-fired plants. Even with today's power plants emitting greenhouse gases, the overall levels would be reduced because the entire process of moving a car one mile is more efficient using electricity than producing gasoline and burning it in a car's engine.

More coal burning means more sulfur emissions. It also means more mercur, particulates, and other pollutants.

Total sulfur dioxide emissions would increase in the near term due to sulfur content in coal. However, urban air quality would actually improve since the pollutants are emitted from power plants that are generally located outside cities. In the long run, according to the report, the steady demand for electricity is likely to result in investments in much cleaner power plants, even if coal remains the dominant fuel for our electricity production.

Newer electric plants could be built to tougher emissions requirements if the political will exists to make that happen. More stringent requirements on emissions from coal fired plants will push more new construction toward nuclear power plants. Tougher emissions regulations would raise the cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity.

"With cars charging overnight, the utilities would get a new market for their product. PHEVs would increase residential consumption of electricity by about 30 - 40 percent. The increased generation could lead to replacing aging coal-fired plants sooner with newer, more environmentally friendly versions," said Kintner-Meyer.

"The potential for lowering greenhouse gases further is quite substantial because it is far less expensive to capture emissions at the smokestack than the tailpipe. Vehicles are one of the most intractable problems facing policymakers seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Pratt.

Big power plants can have big emissions control equipment and highly skilled technical staff to manage the equipment. The capture and management of sulfur, mercury, particulates, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants is far easier than with cars running on gasoline.

If utilities were to change their rate structures to charge more during periods of high demand and less during periods of low demand (aka dynamic pricing) then pluggable hybrids would pay off more quickly and people would move toward them more quickly.

Finally, the study looked at the economic impact on consumers. Since, PHEVs are expected to cost about $6,000 to $10,000 more than existing vehicles - mostly due to the cost of batteries -- researchers evaluated how long it might take owners to break even on fuel costs. Depending on the price of gas and the cost of electricity, estimates range from five to eight years - about the current lifespan of a battery. Pratt notes that utilities could offer a lower price per kilowatt hour on off-peak power, making PHEVs even more attractive to consumers.

The pluggable hybrids could be connected to electric sockets with smart electronic switches that waited till electric prices dropped below some settable minimum before starting to charge.

Dynamic pricing combined with pluggable hybrids that can easily respond to pricing changes will do something else too: They will create more growth potential for energy sources that are not reliable. Wind and solar photovoltaics will both become more useful if a large portion of the demand for electricity was highly responsive to pricing changes. Pluggable hybrids will provide such a use for electric power.

To make pluggable hybrids most effective we need better batteries. Venture capital start-ups and established companies are chasing that goal. I'm confident the battery advances will come. The growing demand for hybrid vehicles has provided the financial incentive to invest in better battery technology.

We also need regulatory reform in the electric power market to make dynamic pricing a reality. Here I'm less optimistic. Government regulators and electric utilities don't have much incentive to push through a shift to dynamic pricing and I do not expect the public to be excited about it.

Update: A large increase in the demand for over night electricity would tend to cause a phase out of electric generator plants that provide peak power (notably natural gas burners) in favor of base line electric power generators (mostly coal and nuclear). Why? Because the base load suppliers are cheaper per kwh but only if they can run constantly. Coal and especially nuclear plants cost more to build but use cheaper fuel. They need to operate constantly to pay for their higher capital costs.

The exact mix of coal versus nuclear is going to depend on the regulatory environment and on technological advances. Tougher emissions regulations will favor nuclear. Technological advances might lower the costs of one more than the other. My guess is that nuclear has a greater potential for cost declines from technological advances. But when will those technological advances come?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 December 11 08:53 PM  Energy Electric Cars

Jim said at December 12, 2006 8:26 AM:

to the extent that millions of cars are hooked up to the grid, charging at smartly chosen times for their local situation, this is a large-scale, distributed load-leveling.... it would be an interesting calculation to assume current hybrid battery capacity and multiply that by 10 to 100 million to get an estimate of load-leveling capacity we're talking about in comparison to the electric grid generating capacity.

Scott Shaffer said at December 12, 2006 11:15 AM:

In response to your comment regarding the problems accessing electricity if you can't use a garage: Don't we have electricity in nearly all parts of our infrastructure? I notice street lights nearly everywhere, and power for stop lights, video cameras, and much more is all very near the street. It doesn't seem like a reach to imagine electric charging stations similar to parking meters - just plug it in and the car communicates it's owners information to the system, turning on the power and billing the owner.

My employer today provides free electricity for anybody willing to drive an electric car even today, I could imagine that being extended throughout parking lots (either as a perk or for a fee.)

And will the hassle of recharging at night really be more annoying than going to a gas station once a week today? Personally, I find that to be a major annoyance already.

I imagine (and it may not be like this) a retractable cord that comes out of the car and allows you to plug it in - similar to engine block heaters. I would hope they would be long enough to get you to an outlet outside your garage or house (assuming you can't use the one inside.) And although I haven't seen what kind of voltage is required, I was also assuming it would operate on standard 110V/15A household supply? If it needs something special (even 220V) that might be a bit of a pain but not unworkable.

And I thought it was established that extra power plants generating electricity would create less of an environmental impact at a lower cost than my car currently does? I'm personally more of a fan of nuclear power, but coal will work if the political will isn't there for nuclear. And assuming we convert .35/kWhr gasoline for even .12/kWhr electricity, I'd be willing to kick in a little extra to make my coal as emissions free as we can get it. I'd rather see a large, stationary coal burning plant add emissions equipment than every single car have to carry it around.

I'm interested in PHEV because I believe it gets us to the advantage we want (lower gasoline usage with lower emissions) in a manner the public can adopt. Despite the advances of other alternative fuels, the nation today is setup for 2 major sources of energy - gasoline and electricity. Leveraging that is the path to success.

And finally, would these PHEVs allow for the removal of the catalytic converter? I ask seriously, I know there is a gas engine in there but given how little it would be designed to operate, perhaps we could drop the weight and cost of that device to help make up the cost of the batteries.


Randall Parker said at December 12, 2006 5:02 PM:


A massive fleet of electric cars would make the grid much more robust. People could run their houses off their car batteries if a big power outage hit.

Scott Shaffer,

Yes, parking lots could sell electricity to parked cars. But they'd tend to make their sales during the day when electricity would cost more under a dynamic pricing system.

I look forward to the day when parking lots all become covered over with solar cell panels that sell their electricity to the cars parked underneath them. Then people could charge up while they are at work.

I do not think nuclear's biggest obstacle is greenie opposition. The greenies have gotten ambivalent about nuclear. An energy bill passed a few years ago made the regulatory process for new nuclear plants simpler by reducing the number of permits and reducing the risk of permit problems once a plant get built. The regulatory decisions now come more up near the beginning of the process to build. A repeat of the Shoreham fiascon is probably no longer possible.

PHEVs and catalytic converters: As long as the cars burn gas they'll put out far too much pollution without catalytic converters. Take away the internal combustion engine and then a lot of weight can be saved from engine, transmission, and catalytic converter. Batteries do not just compete with gasoline for weight. A pure electric car's batteries would displace a heavy internal combustion engine and other drive train components that'll weigh much less in an electric car. Each wheel will have an electric motor built into it. So no need for a transmission and shafts delivering the power.

Engineer-Poet said at December 12, 2006 9:15 PM:

Parking lots would have an incentive to let customers plug-in if the utility used V2G services for regulation; the lot could get a cut.  Ditto employers.

The last 3 places I've lived have either had an outlet within 25 feet of the parking spot, or carports which could easily be wired for individual outlets.  If PHEV cars became common, most places would be wired pretty quickly.  Boxes, conduit and buried cable aren't rocket science.  I can do it myself.

The real advance is that this gives everyone a chance to make their own "motor fuel", and provides a distributed consumption and regulation system for distributed generation.  That 7-11 on the corner sure would look better with a parking lot shaded by heliostats aiming sun at a Stirling generator, no?  Efficient, stylish and more comfortable to return to your car after a stop.

bigelow said at December 14, 2006 11:25 AM:

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla., Nov. 6, 2006 (PRIMEZONE) -- Solomon Technologies, Inc. (OTC BB:SOLM.OB - News) announced today that it has completed the trial portion of its patent infringement case against Toyota Motor Corporation (NYSE:TM - News) and certain of its affiliates for infringement of Solomon's Electric Wheel(tm) technology patent. Solomon has alleged that the Hybrid Synergy Drive(r) system installed in vehicles manufactured and imported by Toyota, such as the Prius, Highlander Hybrid, Camry Hybrid and the Lexus RX400h, infringe Solomon's U.S. Patent No. 5,067,932.

Mike said at July 29, 2008 1:22 PM:

And why are we concentrating on PHEVs? What about pure electric vehicles with no gas engine in them at all?

By the way, in Nova Scotia, Canada, there is already a scheme in place for less expensive electricity at off-peak hours. This is managed with time of day meters. The on-peak electricity costs more than it would normally, but if you can mostly shift to off-peak use, this is still a huge savings. One way to shift to off-peak is to use Electric Thermal Storage units. Another is to shift your gasoline usage to charge batteries in your electric cars in off-peak hours.

We have a local radio program here that interviewed someone from the Ecology Action Centre. The person they interviewed actually said that we should not have electric cars in Nova Scotia because our power company generates electricity with coal! Imagine that! The Ecology Action Centre recommending AGAINST electric cars! What drivel! He claimed that carbon dioxide emmssions would be just as bad from the coal-fired generating plants - the same as driving a car that gets 9 litres per 100 KMs (5.7 l/100 KMs is about 50 Mpg). Even if that was true, is it possible he forgot about all the environmental damage caused by dredging oil from the filthy Alberta tar sands? Or all the manufacturer pollution caused by creating gasoline engines, exhaust parts, starters, catalytic converters? Or all the polution caused by keeping these gas powered monsters running compared the the near zero maintenance for electric cars?

Go figure.


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