Plugging Plug-in Vehicles
Air Date: Week of October 7, 2005
A new and somewhat unusual coalition is advocating hybrid vehicles that can also run on plug-in electricity and alternative fuels like ethanol. Owners could fill up with whatever was cheaper or more available. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.
CURWOOD: With oil now being seen as both risky for pocketbooks and national security, the popular gasoline electric hybrids have inspired calls for a new generation of these vehicles that could use all kinds of fuels and be plugged in, as well. This vision is finding resonance among a diverse group of car watchers who say the technology has already been proven and just needs to be deployed. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.
LOBET: Every car technology that squeezes more miles out of a gallon of gas has its own passionate devotees – those for clean diesel, for battery cars, hybrids and ethanol. Chelsea Sexton is one who was – still is, really – in love with electric cars. The quiet glide, the fast torque.So when her employer, General Motors, canceledits EV1, a hip little two-seater that went on the highway, saying there was no demand, Sexton's electric car fan club went to the lot to keep watch over them.
SEXTON: And then we simply didn't leave. For almost a month, 24 hours a day, we had someone there keeping vigil over these little cars.
LOBET: When GM sent in a semi-truck to haul the electric vehicles to Arizona for crushing, the protesters blocked the truck. The police came.
[KABC news broadcast: Two people were arrested today in a stormy protest over the demise of GM's EV1, all electric car...]
LOBET: Those cars were flattened, but Sexton's group, Dontcrush.com, got plenty of press and claims credit for rescuing about one thousand of the cars. But now, they say, they've taken that tactic about as far as they can.
SEXTON: At this point we feel we're out of cars that are left to save on the road. So we're done saving cars. We want more cars built.
LOBET: So, recognizing the increasing acceptance of hybrid vehicles, the electric car fan club has morphed into Plug In America, a group that advocates hybrid cars that come with a plug.A plug-in hybrid has a gas tank, but can go 20 or 30 miles in electric mode before the gas engine kicks in.If you have an average commute you might only have to fill the tank or use gas to go out of town.
Plug In America also represents an increasingly visible alliance between foreign policy experts, some of them conservative, and environmentalists. The policy hawks see American dollars fueling militant Islamists. They believe Americans should use less fuel, import less fuel and produce more fuel at home.
LUFT: We’re facing today a perfect storm of strategic, economic and environmental problem that make it really an urgent issue.
Gal Luft is a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli military, now economics and strategic studies scholar. He co-directs an energy security think tank in Washington.
LUFT: This country does not have a lot of oil. We consume 25 percent of the world’s oil.We have only three percent of the reserves. So there’s not a lot of future with oil in this country, particularly in the transportation sector.
LOBET: And so the car that Luft and others now envision is a plug-in hybrid that you could fill with gas or ethanol. Many gas cars already run on ethanol, and building them to be ethanol-ready, carmakers agree, is a minor matter.
LUFT: What a flex fuel car does, it allows you to use gasoline and alcohol in any combination, any ratio. Could be ethanol from corn, from sugarcane or any cellulosic material. Or it can be methanol, which can be made from coal or natural gas or biomass.
LOBET: Flex fuel cars have been discussed before by some foreign policy experts in recent years, but marrying the idea of flex-fuel to hybrid technology – that's new.
LOBET: James Woolsey is a former director of the CIA and a vp at Booz Allen Hamilton, the management consulting firm. But his avocation is Set America Free, a coalition that includes prominent conservatives and environmentalists. And with that hat on, he's been making the rounds with electric car fan Chelsea Sextonbecause he's convinced, he says, plug-in battery technology is ready.
WOOLSEY: You could be driving, let’s say, a 125-mpg plug-in hybrid Prius and using 85 percent ethanaol, E85.That's about a 500-mpg-of-petroleum car.
LOBET: The city of Austin, Texas, has reached the same conclusion. The Austin City Council recently voted one million dollars in rebates to encourage city residents to purchase plug-in hybrids – even though they can't buy them anywhere yet. Brewster McCracken is an attorney and City Council member.
McCRACKEN: The city of Austin through Austin Energy will offer a rebate of $1,000 per car for every plug-in hybrid that is purchased that’d be on top of any federal rebates or tax credits
LOBET: The chief of Austin Energy, the city's utility, is currently on a national tour trying to persuade other city governments to sign pledges to purchase plug-in hybrids.
McCRACKEN: The aim is to create such a big national pre-order that it would make it economically inevitable to start selling plug-in hybrids faster than would happen otherwise.
LOBET: So, will this car get built? The likely builders are circumspect.Daimler Chrysler is already building 40 plug-in hybrid work vans, but doesn't want to talk much about it. Many eyes are on Toyota.
REINERT: Of course, if there was a market for these cars we would address that market. The problem is a lot of times people want there to be a market and in reality there’s truly not.
LOBET: Bill Reinert is Toyota National Alternate Fuel Vehicle manager.Reinert says any combustion engine can be made flex-fuel, so he agrees with the environmentalists and policy hawks that these cars can be built without too much trouble. But, he says, what no one yet knows is whether people would buy a plug-in flex fuel Camry or Highlander.
REINERT: And while you see a lot of unsold SUVs on the lots, that doesn't necessarily mean that people are just going right to Priuses or flexible fuels. You could make a big miscalculation in assuming that’s the case.
LOBET: Where Toyota also differs with the policy hawks is on whether flex fuel vehicles are necessarily greener than a plain old gas Prius.
REINERT: If you are burning coal in an antiquated coal-fired power plant to produce the electricity, you are really going backwards from an environmental point of view. And really, what you’re doing is you are trading off petroleum for coal, and there’s a lot of attendant problems with that in Appalachia and areas like that.
LOBET: The flex fuel plug-in advocates would beg to differ. Austin, Texas, for example, plans to run it’s new plug in vehicles , should they materialize, off west Texas wind energy.They don't believe it's necessary to make environmental tradeoffs for energy security. But it's revealing that war and weather, along with advances in hybrid car design, have driven the national energy discussion to this edge. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.
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