The Rallying Cry for Electric Fuel

Speaking at the Plug-in 2008 conference in San Jose, Calif., Andy Grove, former Chairman & CEO, Intel Corporation, added his voice to the chorus of government and business leaders calling for the rapid development and deployment of large numbers of plug-in hybrids. Grove called the current energy situation a “clear and present danger” to the United States. He wants to see a task force of utility companies, automakers, high technology companies and academia develop a plan to put 10 million plug-in hybrids on the road—and present that plan to the new president on his first day in office.

Grove sees electricity as the ideal transportation fuel because it’s “fungible,” meaning that it can be created in many different ways, transported easily and used in different ways.

Grove’s challenge was immediately answered by General Motors and
the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which represents more than 30 of the top electric utilities in the United States and Canada. Jon Lauckner, GM vice president of global program management, announced the collaboration at Plug-in 2008. Lauckner is leading GM’s effort to launch the Chevrolet Volt, the most high-profile plug-in hybrid, scheduled for release in November 2010.

HybridCars.com spoke with Lauckner on the eve of the conference to discuss how the EPRI collaboration will help the auto industry make the difficult transition from gas-powered engines to using electricity as the primary fuel for cars and trucks. Here is an extended excerpt from the interview:

“First, we need to harmonize the technical interface between the vehicle and the grid—so that when people plug vehicles in, they charge in a way that’s most efficient in terms of cost with the right peaks and valleys on the grid. That’s number one. [See "The Car Electric-Grid Utopia, With Caveats".]

“Number two is public education. We usually don’t think about driving in terms of cost per mile. But when you are talking about fuels—electricity versus gasoline—you can’t talk about miles per gallon. We talk about cost per mile. There’s a re-education that needs to take place.

“At current fuel prices, a car that gets 30 miles per gallon fuel economy costs about 14 cents a mile in fuel costs alone. An electric vehicle of the same size and the same mass, everything else being equal, costs 2 cents a mile on peak, and 1 cent per mile with off-peak rates.

“Somebody who drives an average amount of miles per year—let’s say 12,000 miles—the net cost savings for using electricity as a fuel, as compared to gasoline, is at least $1,700 dollars. That’s the gasoline that you don’t buy, netted out against the electricity that you do buy. Obviously, that number varies depending what you pay for electricity per kilowatt-hour, and the price of gasoline at any particular moment. As the price of gasoline goes up, that advantage just gets bigger.

“That by the way, puts no value on the CO2 that’s not generated, thanks to electricity, which is yet another advantage. But we’re just talking about economics that you can count—but there is an economic value for not generating CO2, and other tailpipe emissions.


  • Bryce

    This conference was very interesting, and it will be very interesting to see the development of plug-ins over the next few years. GM made a good move in getting the utilities on board, and I am proud of them for their Volt. Not only that, but the competition it will stir up with other plug-in range extended electric vehicles. May the races begin!

    First post.

  • John K.

    While I LOVE the idea of the Volt, I hope GM does more. GM is planning on releasing a ~$30k Saturn Vue “Two Mode” Li ion PHEV in 2010. What GM needs to do is to adapt that PHEV tech to their Chevy Malibu. That would be a *hot* seller. They already have most of the tech worked out for the Vue. They already have the Malibu platform in prdxn and it is VERY highly regarded by the automotive press and the public. The closer they price it to $28k, the hotter it will sell. While not as earth-shattering of a product as the Volt, it would be almost half the cost as the Volt (if GM sold Volts at cost) and GM could turn a profit on it a LOT faster. Since it would be so much cheaper to buy, it would not compete w/the Volt, but would compete w/the Prius. Sounds win:win to me.

    I’m happy the utilities will coordinate w/the auto companies to help w/the costs of development and ramping up prdxn of Li ion batteries.

    EEStor’s ultracapacitor, which is to be commercialized before the end of this year, could be a MAJOR advance to help replace some or all Li ion batteries. It could also significantly decrease the weight of PHEVs/EVs and space needed for the batteries.

    Similarly, a larger version of Flybrid Systems’ flywheel storage system could be “spun up” via the grid at night, and then used during the day. Like hydraulic hybrids, its performance may not degrade w/usage.

  • Bill

    Batteries are not going to give us a 500 mile range on a single charge anytime in the near future. Even a Tesla’s 200+ mile range is a little short. Let’s say I want to go on vacation and drive 750 miles. I want to see modular battery packs for at least a portion of the total battery pack that I can pull into a filling station and swap out much like propane gas tanks for outdoor grills. A 5 minute stop and I’m on my way for another 50 – 100 miles. Maybe combine battery power with CNG?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Bill,
    How would you feel about a 20-30 minute refueling that would get you an additional 100 – 200 miles if that technology were available? That’s a bathroom and coffee break about every 2 – 3 hours while you’re on your vacation?
    How would this suit you as a tradeoff for never having to stop at a gas station the rest of the time and never being a slave to gas prices?
    Swapping a 600 lb or heavier battery is not an easy or safe task so it isn’t clear that battery swap is more feasible than a fast charge. It probably would take closer to 10 – 15 minutes as well, similiar to a tire rotation or an oil change.

  • Gareth

    I think with the points that have bee discussed above, Hydrogen or Dual-Fuel is the future. For the next 30 years at least there’s just not the technology there to cover the distance required.

    The weight and longevity issue is just too much of a problem for cars. If you want to solve the problem really quickly, why don’t we change the highway system to a giant scalextrics track – with live lines? The cars would be quick, no emissions and no filling up.

    I’m not being facetious about the posts above, but in my opinion that’s a more viable alternative to electric cars.

  • alex the believer

    How many times is someone really driving 750 mi or for that matter more than 100 mi. I think that is such a rare event (outside of rural areas) that you do not need to design a vehicle around that constraint. Plus – the PHEV scenario uses gasoline for range extention, that why its still called a hybrid.

    If you plot the energy densities of batteries over the last 20 years it has followed a similar curve to micro processing or computer memory – it grows out of the mentality of consumer electronics, moores law and mobile tech demands – all of which have much better track record for innovation than the automotive industry. So – bottom line – just as you can be sure that a computer from 2005 with 1gb of ram will be as common as computer in 2010 with 10gb of ram. 200 mi range in 500lb worth of batteries will turn into 500 mi soon enough and much faster than the hydrogen ecomony coming into being.

  • Bryce

    I am afraid my friend that there are indeed people that take long trips all the time. Whenever I drive out to the desert, or the river, or the Sierra Nevadas, on my way, I wil see thousands of cars, all of which have probably traveled already at that point several hundred miles. An electric drive would be nice, but it better have a range extender like the EREV (extended range electric vehicle) technology like the volt or else it isn’t worth the purchase to me and all those others who actually leave the bubble of your little worlds to enjoy nature.

  • Anonymous

    Good points Bryce. Working w/ power companies and maybe sometime in the future setting up quick charge stations are needed. The Volt or any other EREV will not meet the needs of everyone right a way. Lets be optimistic instead of being pessimistic b/c the market is young yes improvements and reduction in prices are going to come.
    If EREV’s say in 20 years become domestically/globally popular we know that there could be a chance of conservation of fuel, lowering demand and lowering fuel prices
    Lets hope if that happens GM and others don’t go back to the days of producing boats & tanks.

  • FlexRaz

    What will be fascinating to see is the battle between Canadian/US power companies vs oil companies in terms of political influence over the next thirty years. This will be a deciding factor in the expansion of the EV or Long range hybrids. Some think its not fair but tax rebates (like the program we used w/ hybrids) or other measures are needed for EV/hybrids. I would like to see insentives for producing EV’s under 20K.

    Another question that has to be worked out is how do we restructure federal funding for our highway infrastructure?

    While agree with others that its early in the game we must also look at how political polices will shape the market and the future of the Volt

  • Bryce

    These technologies will come. Hell, the first internal combustion engine was seven feet tall. Time will bring us what we are craving.

  • ER-EV guy

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the electric car industry combines a few EEStor ultracapacitors along with the latest and greatest lithium ion batteries. To use a computer analogy, the lithium ion batteries would be like a hard drive (electric gas tank) and the ultracapacitors would be your computer memory RAM. Ultracapacitors are good for rapidly outputting electricity for extra power for passing and going uphill. They are ALSO very good for rapidly storing energy like from regenerative braking …. AND for rapidly taking charge out of a high capacity outlet. The thing about ultracapacitors is that they don’t have much capacity. The EEStor ultracaps are supposed to have more storage capacity though.

    By combining EEStor ultracapacitors with GMs latest lithium ion batteries you might get combined all electric miles of 250+ miles AND you’d be able to charge the whole battery pack up in about 5-10 minutes. The ultracapacitor would rapidly take in the electricity from the pump and fairly rapidly feed the lithium ion battery with it. For using the stored electricity it works in reverse … plus you get the juice from efficient regenerative braking. Put some cheap thin film solar panels on the roof for the A/C and you could have one helluva car. Of course, there’s the question of COST … but they say the EEStor ultracaps aren’t too expensive at least.

    Call it a super high tech ultracap/lithium ion hybrid maybe. A no-compromise solution. As long as you have 220V quick charge stations at the filling stations everywhere on interstates you could drive coast to coast just like you do with gasoline cars today. I bet cars like this are going to happen in the next 10 years.

  • Bryce

    That would be convenient especially considering electricity distribution infrastructure is already in place. I am still waiting for these EEstor devices to be shown to the public though so that they can prove the amazing claims they are making. If they make good on their promises, then we may have the answer to the range anxiety problem.

  • Joe

    We will need to boost the amounts of home solar panels to offset this and possibly need more nuclear plants to generate energy.

  • Steven F. Schluter

    My wife and I own a gas station in the mountains of Montana. We would love to see something else come along, hybrid, all electric, etc. I hate having to buy fuel, store fuel, and sell fuel, if we could convert to another fuel source besides gasoline that would be fine with us. Since we live so far up in the mountains the transportation cost is very high. We make most our money in the store & rental cabins. Our station sells American Fuel Only, but we still have so much cost in selling fuel, inspection, updated equipment and so on. Fuel for us is just the attraction to get them in the door. I would be first to adapt a charging station & also have a charging station at our cabins for overnight. Plug in hybrid seems to be the best solution for now, on your normal commute to work all electric & on long trips in between charging stations you would have gas or some other fuel source. We rented a Prius for two weeks to see if it really gets the mileage they claim, we drove about 150 miles a day off the mountain and back and averaged 56mpg, double what we were getting in our Honda Element. Since they have none available at this time we are waiting for plug in hybrid.

  • Phil

    Quick charging platforms (probably usually located at gas stations) and ALTI batteries (if they can get the price down) would solve many of the problems and could result in a very desirable car. Until then, the promise of the Volt looks like the best immediate alternative … except for price.

  • Need2Change

    Why is the Chevy Volt predicted to cost so much?

    Seems like GM could take a $11K (retail) Aveo, replace the engine and radiator with an electric motor and small extender engine for about the same price. Then add a $10,000 battery, and we have a $21K car. Even if the battery costs $15K, we have a $26K car.

    Is the battery going to cost more than $15K?

  • Bryce

    the battery is the pricey thing. It is not just the price of the battery itself, but also the cost of R&D factored in so the battery company can recoup cost. Same goes for GM, their R&D time scale was so short, that it brought up the cost. THe first model year or two will have break even prices to hopefully recoup this, and as economies of scale get ramped up, the price is purported to come down. Coupled with tax credits, this thing shouldn’t be too bad. : ) We will see though.

  • Phill

    Bryce, Your to gullible. You should try reinventing the battery :)

  • Bryce

    I suppose my economics professor really scammed me in college then…..rofl.

  • Fraw

    I heard in an acura blog that Pratt puts that number at about 70 percent of U.S. cars with the energy thay can generate and deliver today. How can we restructure federal funding for road projects?

  • brocknanson

    Seems like everyone is stuck on the idea of batteries. Fuel cell technology may be where we end up. Fill the cell with hydrogen at the local ‘gas station’ and carry on. Capacitors, batteries… much of the hybrid regenerative technology would be applicable. And certainly, the CVT and motor technology in the hybrids would carry over.

    Interesting days ahead, I’m sure.

  • Paul Beerkens

    Hydrogen is an interesting technology but I am not aware of any efficient way of creating the hydrogen at this point in time. Although it is good to continue doing research in this technology it is very dangerous to hold up the roll out of electrical vehicles because one day there might be a efficient hydrogen production process. It is a disruption tactic that has been used for the last 10 years to divert the attention of solutions that are ready to be rolled out.

  • cj

    The electricity needed to charge all of these batteries will have to come from somewhere. Most power grids can barely keep up at their current usage levels. Are we to construct more polluting coal or gas fired power plants? Shall we dot the country with nuclear power plants for which we still don’t have long term safe storage for the waste? Wind power works only in geographically windy areas. Solar power only works when the sun shines. Electricity generated from tides and waves can only be transmitted so far from the coast. Obviously, a well thought out multifaceted power infrastructure must be online before plug-in vehicles can hope to become a commonplace practical reality.

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