Plug-in versions can go 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Toyota Prius owners tend to be a proud lot since they drive the fuel-efficient hybrid gas-electric car that's the darling of mainstream environmentalists and one of the hottest-selling vehicles in America. A few, however, felt that good was not good enough. They've made "improvements" even though the modifications voided parts of their warranties.
Ron Gremban of Corte Madera did it. So did Felix Kramer of Redwood City, and Sven Thesen of Palo Alto. Why? Five words: one hundred miles per gallon.
"We took the hybrid car to its logical conclusion," Kramer says, by adding more batteries and the ability to recharge by plugging into a regular electrical socket at night, making the car a plug-in hybrid.
Compared with the Prius' fuel efficiency of 50 mpg, plug-in hybrids use half as much gasoline by running more on cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity. If owners forget to plug in overnight, it's no big deal -- the car runs like a regular hybrid.
These trendsetters monkeyed with the car for more than their own benefit. They did it to make a point: If they could make a plug-in hybrid, the major car companies could, too. And should.
Kramer, Gremban and a cadre of volunteers formed the California Cars Initiative (online at calcars.org), and in 2004 converted Gremban's Prius to a plug-in hybrid in his garage. They added inexpensive lead-acid batteries and some innovative software to fool the car's computerized controls into using more of the energy stored in the batteries, giving the car over 100 mpg in local driving and 50 to 80 mpg on the highway. The cost of conversion is about $5,000 for a do-it-yourselfer.
CalCars' efforts to publicize plug-in hybrids were so successful that in January 2006 the Bush administration lifted a photo of the car peeking out from Gremban's garage and featured it on the White House Web site as a harbinger of good cars to come. Do-it-yourselfers in Illinois and elsewhere converted their hybrids to plug-ins. Several small companies like EnergyCS in Southern California started doing small numbers of conversions for fleets and government agencies using longer-lasting, more energy-dense lithium-ion batteries.
Kramer hired EnergyCS to convert his Prius and reported on a typical day of driving. He traveled 51 miles, mostly on the highway, at fuel efficiencies of 124 mpg of gas and about a penny's worth of electricity per mile. Compared with driving his Prius before the conversion, he used 61 percent less gas and spewed out two-thirds less greenhouse gases at a total cost of $1.76 for electricity and gasoline, instead of the $3.17 it would have required on gasoline alone.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. acquired an EnergyCS plug-in Prius conversion, too. It so impressed Thesen, a PG&E supervisor in the clean air transportation group, that he offered his privately owned Prius to CalCars as a guinea pig. Back in Gremban's garage, CalCars and the Electric Auto Association converted it in November to a plug-in with lead-acid batteries as part of a video and educational package to guide do-it-yourselfers (www.eaa-phev.org).
Support for plug-in hybrids from a utility like PG&E, which still produces 45 percent of its electricity from polluting fossil fuels, makes some environmentalists nervous. The data on plug-in hybrids, however, have calmed their fears. On the U.S. electrical grid, which gets more than half of its power from dirty, nasty coal, plug-in cars produce fewer overall emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants than do other cars.
California's grid uses less coal, which makes plug-in cars even cleaner. As more wind and solar power get added to the energy mix, driving on electricity gets cleaner still. Driving on gasoline will only get dirtier as conventional sources dry up and we desperately turn to hard-to-extract oil that requires lots of energy to get at, producing lots more pollution.
Enthusiasm over plug-in hybrids has created strange bedfellows. Perched somewhat uneasily alongside PG&E and the former oil man in the White House, Sierra Club leaders representing 13 chapters in California and Nevada adopted a resounding endorsement of plug-in hybrids in the past year.
Former Sierra Club President Larry Fahn has been looking for a mechanic to convert his Prius for more than a year. Therein lies the problem. People want plug-in hybrids but can't get them. Dealers don't sell them yet, and the few conversion services cater to fleets.
There are only a few dozen plug-in hybrids in the world, while demand for them is growing rapidly. The city of Austin, Texas, which uses more renewable power than any other U.S. city, started a Plug-in Partners Campaign and gathered more than 8,000 advance orders for plug-in hybrids. In the Bay Area, San Francisco, Alameda, Berkeley and Marin County signed on as Plug-in Partners.
Are the automakers listening? Maybe.
Several showed plug-in hybrid prototypes in the 1990s but cast them aside during their battle to weaken California's Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate. Stung by bad publicity from the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?", General Motors reversed course and showed the prototype plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt at a January auto show. In the past year, at least six major car companies have said they're developing plug-in vehicles, including Toyota officials, who seem none too happy about amateurs messing with the Prius.
Plug-in hybrids won't hit the market, though, until better batteries are developed, the automakers say. That doesn't sit well with drivers like Marc Geller of San Francisco, who co-founded the nonprofit group Plug In America (www.pluginamerica.org). The nickel-metal hydride batteries in Gellers' all-electric 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV give the compact SUV plenty of power, take him all over the Bay Area, and are expected to last the life of the car, based on utility company fleet tests.
Consumers appear to have three options to hasten the arrival of plug-in hybrids: Demand them ("Tell the automakers that you won't buy a new car unless it has a plug on it," Geller says), or push for government incentives or interventions. (The California Air Resources Board is planning to revise the zero-emissions mandate this year.)
Or, build your own plug-in hybrid.
Sherry Boschert is the author of "Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America" and a member of Plug In America. She will speak about renewable energy and plug-in cars at a free public event on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Sierra Club headquarters, 85 Second St., third floor, San Francisco. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, March 29, 2007