Aug 17, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Two entertaining weekend reading articles from new green-mall media websites that have chosen to feature coverage of PHEVs in their launch or beta issues. The Daily Green, from Hearst Publications, is about PHEVs and CalCars. The Blue Egg, a venture-backed green-building-focused website whose CEO is magazine veteran Cyndi Stivers (Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Time Out NY, etc.) is an interview. See the originals for many links within the articles
Important Voices Plugging in the Future
Driving Directions: Getting There Green / Jim Motavalli
This is the first entry in what I hope will be a long-running series on greening the recalcitrant auto industry, as well as taking a close look at mass transit and other ways of getting where you want to go.
As I detail in my book Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future, the Big Three (and most of the international competition, too) have fought everything from catalytic converters to federal mileage standards, usually claiming that one more regulation would drive them into bankruptcy.
But it turns out that addiction to the profits from SUVs and light trucks has been far more detrimental to the bottom line. Today, Detroit is playing catch-up as Toyota prepares the third generation of its highly successful Prius.
I'm the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, a frequent contributor to the New York Times 'Automobiles' section, and a veteran auto columnist who's excited by the possibilities not only of hybrids, but also biofuels, fuel cells and battery electrics. And in this era of oil shocks and climate change, I love to hear about new technology that will erode the tyranny of the tailpipe.
In October of 2004, at the annual Bioneers Conference in California, I was approached by the wiry and wiry-haired ball of enthusiasm that is Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org. Although I'd written Forward Drive in 1999 and predicted the market success of hybrid cars, the phrase 'plug-in hybrid' was unfamiliar to me, but Felix made it sound like the wave of the future. 'Sixty miles per gallon?' he said. 'How about 100 miles per gallon?'
CAPTION: Until now, plug-in hybrids have been mostly homemade. Courtesy Calcars.org
The idea is pretty simple. Add extra battery capacity to a hybrid car and give it 10 to 30 miles of all-electric range, so that short-hop commuters need never use their gas motors. The automakers dismissed the idea at first, but now both GM and Toyota are committed to it, though no production dates are available yet.
On July 25, however, Toyota said it had received Japanese road certification for a prototype plug-in version of the current Prius, and would supply the vehicle to two branches of the University of California, in Berkeley and Irvine. With nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the prototypes are said to have an eight-mile range in all-electric mode. 'We've been working for this moment since 2002,' said Kramer.
And now a new study from the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council says that wide use of plug-in hybrids could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 450 million metric tons annually in 2050. That's an effect similar to taking 82.5 million cars off the road! On the downside, another study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy points out that the advantage of plug-ins disappears in regions with coal-dependent grids, such as parts of the Midwest.
CAPTION: Toyota's plug-ins are still just prototypes for now.
Jim Motavalli is the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and writes regularly on transportation for the New York Times. He lectures on environmental topics and hosts a bi-weekly public affairs radio show on WPKN. His articles have appeared in Popular Mechanics, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Boston Globe, Paste Magazine, Salon, Cars.com, The Guardian, Sierra, Vegetarian Times and many others.
Plug-In Hybrid Milestone
Four Facts About Plug-In Hybrids
Plug-In Car, Recharge Power Grid
What Jesus Would Drive, Part II
Google Plug-In Hybrid, Get Google
Plugging for a better car
Former tech entrepreneur drives consumer demand for clean, 'no sacrifices' vehicles
Thomas M. Kostigen [co-author of the recent 'The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time']
The California Cars Initiative is a Palo Alto-based nonprofit startup of entrepreneurs, engineers, environmentalists, and consumers promoting 100-plus mile per hour plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. It's focused on both public policy and technology development to harness buyer demand. Ultimately, they hope to encourage automakers to produce these 'no-sacrifices,' high-performance, clean hybrid cars.
A plug-in hybrid is a car or truck that has batteries that can be recharged by plugging in to an electrical power source. They are a mix between traditional hybrid cars and battery-powered electric vehicles. To be sure, plug-in hybrids can also be made as vans, utility trucks, school buses, scooters, and military vehicles.
In any case, the cost for electricity to run plug-in hybrids during all-electric operation in California has been estimated as less than one fourth of the cost of gasoline. And the official benefits go on: plug-in hybrids have the potential to reduce air pollution as well as dependence on petroleum, and to mitigate global warming by producing less greenhouse gases than conventional vehicles. Plug-in hybrids can operate completely free of any fossil fuel energy if their batteries are charged from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar power. Other potential benefits worth noting are improved national energy security (due to less reliance on foreign oil supplies), fewer fill-ups at the gas station, the convenience of home recharging, and opportunities to provide emergency backup power in the home.
So far, plug-in hybrids aren't in commercial production (though they were on the market briefly a few years ago) . However, Toyota and General Motors might introduce them in the next few years. GM has publicly committed to launching a plug-in hybrid called the Volt for 2010. And recently Toyota announced it would be testing its plug-in hybrid on public roads. Conversion kits also are available. Most conversions have been done on Prius model cars, which extend their electric-only range and add plug-in charging. And it was in such a model that I first met Felix Kramer, outside the Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills, CA, where he was touting plug-in hybrid benefits to a celebrity crowd that included Bruce Willis and Jake Gyllenhaal, among others.
Recently, we had a chance to catch up one-on-one to talk about plug-in hybrids and his 'going green' experiences.
When, where and why did the green light bulb first go on for you?
Broadly speaking, all the way back. I remember as a kid wondering why police and fire trucks would idle just to play the radio. Do you know how long it takes idling your car before you are wasting fuel?
Less than a minute. Thirty seconds.
Most people don't know that. But that's why many Europeans turn off their engines when they are going down those long hills. Anyway, I'm 58 years old, and at the beginning of the '70s I became really interested in the environment. Amory Lovins, [founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute], really inspired me. He was the first one to talk about soft energy and megawatts. So in 1978 I got involved [in the environmental movement] and became executive director of New York City's Sun Day. We got a lot of attention for putting windmills and solar panels on top of buildings. Then I dove into technology for two decades and came back up in 2001.
When, where and how did CalCars evolve?
After I sold out of the technology sector in 2001, I checked out what Amory was doing with Hyper cars. It was a spin-off of the Rocky Mountain Institute designed to create the ultimate advanced 100-mile-a-gallon car, really optimizing everything.
I spent about a year talking with Hyper cars and creating a business model for them. Those discussions ended up as the foundation for a conference that led to the funding of CalCars in 2002.
So what's the point of CalCars?
Figuring out what types of cars we want and then going to carmakers and telling them, if you build them, we'll buy them. We've kept the buyers' model that I learned in the technology world. We demonstrate what's possible, showcase it, and motivate carmakers to mass-produce better cars. Figuring out what types of cars we want and then telling carmakers what we want. We attracted some very unlikely bedfellows: right wing conservatives worried about national security, left wing environmentalists, engineers. Now we are going after the carmakers.
What are the best practices you try to abide by in operating your business to facilitate growth?
The same ones that we are trying to create for the environment, and there are three. One: Make everything electric, and clean electric, including your car. Two: Cheaper. Electricity equates to less than one dollar a gallon; gas is now more than three [dollars per gallon]. Also, it's a way to revive and save the car industry. And three: Domestic. The less fuel we use the more we strengthen national security. It empowers industry to grow here.
How many people do you have working there to accomplish all this?
Sounds like a big mission. We have two full-time employees, three to five almost full-time volunteers, 50 to 100 advisers, and 5,000 people on our distribution list.
Any particular type of green business practices you employ within the ranks?
We are virtual, and do most of our work by phone. We don't hold many meetings. And we are lean and spare: we try not to use many resources.
And what's the biggest green benefit of the business?
We take existing cars and make them better. Pacific Gas & Electric just started doing what we've been hoping more utilities would do: they said they would take the batteries from electric vehicles and instead of recycling them, they would use them in the basements of buildings to power other things. So by keeping used batteries they don't end up in junkyards degrading.
Good to know when the battery goes in my Prius. Actually Toyota offers a $250 reward to anyone who turns one back in. All those questions about where the batteries go and whether they are worse for the environment go away now.
Which potentially looming natural disaster is most frightening to you?
If we don't rapidly transition to clean electric, we're cooked. Solving global warming conceptually is simple: We must take every device and power it by electricity and then clean the grid with wind and solar power. Then we can create zero-carbon-emitting liquid fuels. There is no reason why we couldn't do it. We may have to pay a little bit more for our electricity, but we could do it.
What's 'a little bit more' for electricity? Any guesstimates?
Well, I don't think we'd have to build any more coal plants! And it's something that Lester Brown [president of the Earth Policy Institute] says would be about double the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity now. But that's little cost relative to the economic consequences that will evolve. Amory Lovins makes the case that we'd end up saving a lot of money because of the tremendous opportunities for conservation.
What is your biggest eco accomplishment?
What I've been doing over the last five years [since CalCars began] has been the most satisfying time in my life. And we are not done, but we are making good progress. We are taking what no one took seriously and making a real contribution. I am also having fun doing it.
What is your biggest eco sin?
I drive too much. Where I live, I have to drive for everything. I'm hoping to move to a more walkable area where there is mass transportation, cafes, and supermarkets.
What is the one tradeoff you'd really rather not make, no matter how good it is for the environment?
Getting everybody in the world to be a vegetarian is probably the most important thing we could do for the world because of all the resources it takes to produce meat and all the methane it produces. I try not to eat as much meat, but I still do. I wish I didn't, but I like it.
Whom would you choose to be your carpool buddy and why?
They have these corners in Berkeley where people stand there and wait for rides. It's a carpool stop and it's unofficial, but I really like the idea of that diversity. So if I had to choose a carpool buddy it would be that-lots of different people.
What's the one easy thing you do that you wish everyone else would do?
Go see Who Killed the Electric Car or An Inconvenient Truth.
Any web sites, books or resources you'd recommend to people?
Plan B 2.0 by Lester Brown, Bill McDonough's Cradle to Cradle, Plug-in Hybrids by Sherry Boschert, and The Clean Tech Revolution by Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder.
As for web sites, there are so many. ButGreen Car Congress; Worldchanging; Realclimate.org; Evworld; Hybridcars; the Huffington Post; and Alternet are a good start. and, of course, we hope BlueEgg.comThank you.