Will Plug-in Hybrids Help Obama in Copenhagen?

Experts see limits to “moon shot” approach for reducing car emissions.

President Barack Obama will propose that the US dramatically reduces greenhouse emissions when he attends the United Nations Climate Change Conference next month in Copenhagen. His proposed target is to reduce total emissions by 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. According to the administration, a big chunk of the reductions will come from improving vehicle fuel efficiency.

Early in his administration, Obama announced new fuel economy targets of 35.5 miles per gallon in 2020—a 40 percent increase from today. But how exactly do we make that 40 percent jump?

One avenue is switching to plug-in hybrid and electric cars as soon as possible. To push in that direction, the Obama Administration awarded $2.4 billion in grants for advanced batteries and electric vehicle research. But many experts say that electric and hybrid cars are unlikely to be sold in high enough numbers in the next decade to have much of an impact.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that “the fight to curb fossil-fuel consumption has often involved moon shots.” The article points to experts who say the smarter strategy is using unglamorous low-tech solutions. “The energy problem,” said Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, “can be advanced a long way by pretty low-tech stuff.” This view pushes the auto industry toward ho-hum solutions, like improving the efficiency of gas engines, making cars smaller and lighter in weight, improving aerodynamics, and offering new incentives for today’s most efficient gas-consuming cars, like hybrids.

Revolutionary versus Evolutionary Technologies

More evidence about the importance of low-tech solutions emerged this past summer, when a group of Silicon Valley technology investors looked at nine different emerging technologies—from biofuels and building efficiency to geothermal and nuclear—to determine which ones were capable of reducing annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 1 billion metric tons—a gigaton—by 2020. In a report called the Gigaton Throwdown, referenced by the Wall Street Journal, the group gave a thumbs up to improving the efficiency of existing buildings—but said that plug-in hybrid cars, one of the nine technologies—wouldn’t reach the gigaton threshold.

The Silicon Valley group said the only way plug-in hybrids could slash emissions by a gigaton by 2020 is if every single new car sold starting in 2010 were a plug-in hybrid. The report concludes, “This number is not possible based on any reasonable vehicle introduction and ramp-up strategy.”

The implications for government officials and the auto industry are to use a host of strategies, rather than single-point high-profile technologies like plug-in cars. The introduction of plug-in hybrids and electric cars must be developed in concert with improving the efficiency of gas-powered cars, reducing the amount people drive, and using “feebates” and other incentives to encourage sales of cars with higher mpg.

Fans of plug-in hybrids and electric cars might need to reset their expectations but should not be discouraged. The Silicon Valley group said, “In the longer term, by 2040 or 2050 and with more time for new vehicles to enter the fleet, some combination of electric drive vehicles that includes plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles, could achieve [targeted] emission reductions.”


  • Phil

    I have a proposal. Let’s establish a federal floor price on gasoline of $2 per gallon. If the price of gas goes below that the difference will be distributed by the government as a tax exemption to pay for purchasing an electric or plug in hybrid car. It would be something concrete that we could do right now and will become more effective with time as demand for gasoline decreases and the number of electric vehicles increase. Not a gas tax but functions similarly.

  • DC

    Why would plug-in hybrids help Obama? The only way to solve the liquid fuel problem, and the looming energy problem is to actually begin DOING something about these problems, not talking about them endlessly. Or even worse, declaring vague ill-defined ‘solutions’s that in reality are not really being worked on except in press releases. Simply declaring something like PHEV or even worse, hoaxes like ethanol or H2 will save the day for america, is wishful thinking at best and misleading at worst. What is interesting about all this is that European cars are on average almost twice as efficent as N.A. ones. While Europe actually has a network of fast-high tech passengar rail systems, the US lamey can only commit to “study” the issue. Its clear the US remains commited to more cars, more roads, more suburban sprawl, more resource wars, while many of its corprate and goverment elites continue to suppress and hinder technologies that would allow for meaningful progress to be made. As long as this situation persists, it wont matter if the US has 1 million or 10 million PHEV’s helping to keep the americans decrepit road system in gridlock.

    q/According to the administration, a big chunk of the reductions will come from improving vehicle fuel efficiency.q

    This line shows the americans are not serious -period. The only way to reduce vehcile emissions is NOT to make the existing ones marginally more efficent. The only way to reduce vehicle pollution is fewer cars, less driveing, and replacing the ICE vehicles that do remain with EV’s as quickly as is practical. Of course, if we wait till 2040 or 50, which no doubt is a plan every oil company on earth can get behind, we wont have to worry about converting fleets any longer since we most likely wont have the energy to build powered vehicles of any kind by that point.

  • Joe

    Save the greenbacks and the environment without government involvement. GOVERNMENT solves everything by taking your money and saying they know better than you to fix everything.

  • DDHv

    We’ve been concentrating on things to improve the situation which we can do ourselves. Once these run out, will be time to ask for help. To be exact, we ask two questions: 1) Is this the alternative with the best payback %, and 2) Will it pay back at least as much as an average stock investment (about 10%). Given both of these, we work on it. We’d be putting in solar hot water, except for the problem of getting a plumber here – we’ve only been trying for two years now.

  • Anonymous

    U.S. cars consume twice as much fuel as European and Japanese cars.
    The average in the U.S. market stands at 22.6 mpg, compared with 40.3 mpg in Europe and 40.6 mpg in Japan.

  • veek

    The Gigaton Throwdown report seems to emphasize major doses of competent Big Government and Big Corporations to solve climate problems caused by automobiles, and this currently seems unrealistic in the US (but there are still plenty of things individuals can do). The Europeans seem to have had greater success in evolving with the automobile, and perhaps Americans should humbly examine how they have done this– even given the differences in cultures. Indeed, European automobiles and driving conditions compare favorably with those in the US, so this may not even involve too much sacrifice.

    America has the knowledge and capability to make many positive contributions, but that potential has been severely compromised over the last 17 years by the predeliction of its voters for divisive and polarizing political leaders

  • Dom

    Right, and in Europe they are not scrambling to replace their cars with hybrids, EVs, or plug-ins… they drive smaller cars, and about half of them have small efficient and powerful clean diesel engines… hmm…
    The government needs to quit pushing one technology and instead encourage all technologies that contribute to more efficiency.

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