Thursday, July 19, 2007

Plug-in Hybrid Study: Electricity Better

The basic question addressed, which appears on the study homepage ( is this: How would air quality and greenhouse gas emissions be affected if significant numbers of Americans drove cars that were fueled by the power grid?

Simply put, the study found what advocates of electric transportation have long held to be true: as regards greenhouse gases and pollution generally speaking, the worst electricity is still better than petroleum. And the grid is getting cleaner and more renewable every year.

A few highlights below, but the significant question that remains is whether this study will make any difference in the public policy advocated by those who shape our understanding of what's possible and most beneficial. Environmental organization and utilities have long known the benefits of electric transportation, but have been cowed by the auto makers' unwillingness to make grid-connected product. You can dig around the websites of NRDC, UCS and the Sierra Club and come to understand that an electric path would be best for all of us, but their advocacy has not reflected the science. UCS advocates relentlessly for cleaner gasoline vehicles and dismisses plug-ins of all sorts, the Sierra Club strikes deals with Ford to promote a few thousand gasoline-dependent hybrids in exchange for advertising dollars, and the NRDC jumped on the biofuels bandwagon just as the cost of corn ethanol became impossible to ignore. I truly hope we have turned a corner.

The EPRI/NRDC study is an exceedingly detailed assessment using modeling analyses of various scenarios to determine the impact of plug-in hybrids. From the two summaries:
Greenhouse Gases
Researchers drew the following conclusions from the modeling exercises:
•Annual and cumulative GHG emissions are reduced significantly across each of the nine scenario combinations.
•Annual GHG emissions reductions were significant in every scenario combination of the study, reaching a maximum reduction of 612 million metric tons in 2050 (High PHEV fleet penetration, Low electric sector CO2 intensity case).
•Cumulative GHG emissions reductions from 2010 to 2050 can range from 3.4 to 10.3 billion metric tons.
•Each region of the country will yield reductions in GHG emissions.
The use of electricity is an important attribute of PHEVs. Use of electricity reduces both gasoline consumption and emissions—starting emissions, refueling emissions, running emissions and even upstream refinery emissions.
PHEVs have lower GHG emissions in all nine cases than either the conventional or the hybridvehicles, ranging from a 40% to 65% improvement over the conventional vehicle to a 7% to 46% improvement over the hybrid electric vehicle.

Air Quality
Because of the significant reduction in emissions from gasoline and diesel fuel use and because caps are in place for some conventional pollutants for the electric power sector, the study finds that in many regions deployment of PHEVs would reduce exposures to ozone and particulate matter, and reduce deposition rates for acids, nutrients, and mercury.

Overall, the air quality benefits from PHEVs are due to a reduction of vehicle emissions below levels required by current regulation (due to their non-emitting operation in all-electric mode), and because most electricity generation emissions are constrained by existing regulatory caps. Any additional increase in the amount of all-electric vehicle miles traveled or further emissions constraints on the electric sector would tend to magnify these benefits.


Anonymous said...

Marc: how is UCS dismissing plug-in hybrids? I searched and found only the following sentence: "Congress should be supporting research in biofuels as well as clean hydrogen and electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles powered with renewable electricity, but not at the expense of proven solutions that are available right now." What else do they say, and where?

Their says "The final level of hybridization extends the electric motor's capacity to drive the car by recharging the battery from a clean energy grid (i.e. "plug in"). This would allow the hybrid to operate solely as a battery-electric vehicle for as much as 20-60 miles, thus improving their environmental performance if they are using clean sources of electricity. A Plug-in can operate as a typical full hybrid if it is not recharged from the power grid, so the benefits of this feature are largely dependent on how often the consumer plugs in. The biggest challenge with these hybrids is cost—they have the highest up-front costs because they require larger motors and battery packs to ensure good vehicle performance and sufficient all-electric range."

At another page, I found that only plug-in hybrids could get 5 checkmarks, the highest rating.

Some of the support seems lukewarm, but "dismisses plug-ins of all sorts" seems the opposite of what I'm seeing online.

Marc Geller said...

In fact that's my point. Much of the websites have good information. (Though UCS has Bill Nye the Science Guy saying "isn't it great you don't have to plug hybrids in.") What I'm referring to has to do with their public comments in news stories when actual plug-ins are discussed. For example, in a recent San Diego newspaper report on the plug-in hybrid effort there, (quoting Felix Kramer) "Asked to comment, the Union of Concerned Scientists spokesman parrots the "we don't pick winners" apology that for years has let the carmakers off the hook on electrifying cars. This hampers public education and permits lobbyists for hydrogen and corn ethanol -- both offering more obstacles and fewer benefits than electricity -- to control most research dollars and incentives." Earlier this year when the Volt was much in the news, rather than offer even general support for a griddable car, the UCS spokesperson said very specifically what we need are simply cleaner, more efficient gasoline cars. I want enviros to acknowledge, whether or not there is product available, that electric miles are cleaner and cheaper than petroleum miles.

Marc Geller said...

So as not to pick on UCS, I'll move on to Sierra Club. Here's their lead spokesman on car issues in the NY Times in April, 2005. "The concern on plug-in hybrids is that we not substitute addiction to one polluting fuel for addiction to a more polluting fuel," said Dan Becker, the head of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "Coal is more polluting than gasoline, and nearly 60 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal." They've not retracted the statement or said anything different since.

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