Dec. 21, 2006: Technology Review—How Plug-In Hybrids Will Save the Grid

Summary: "Major automakers and the Department of Energy are pouring money into research on plug-in hybrid vehicles. These cars promise to cut petroleum consumption by allowing commuters to drive to work using primarily electricity–stored on board in batteries–rather than gas. Although critics have warned that the vehicles could put too much pressure on an already strained electrical grid, experts are now arguing that rather than being a strain on the grid, plug-in hybrids may actually help prevent brownouts, cut the cost of electricity, and increase the use of renewable energy.

Plug-in hybrids, like today’s hybrid cars, can run on either an electric motor or an internal combustion engine. But plug-ins have much larger battery packs and can be recharged by being plugged into the wall, making it possible to rely much more on the electric motor. Although a handful of companies sell conversion kits to change conventional hybrids into plug-ins, the kits add thousands of dollars to the cost of the car (see "Plug-In Hybrids Are on the Way"). This additional cost, which is primarily from the batteries, is one of the reasons the major automakers haven’t yet mass produced such vehicles, although they are now developing them. GM, for example, recently committed to making a plug-in version of a Saturn SUV (see "GM’s Plug-In Hybrid")."

Would such a system be fair to owners and operators of plug-in hybrid vehicles? If the utilities rely on disparate cars to suck up excess power, then return power when demand is greatest, should owners of plug-ins get a break on their electricity rates? Or should they consider the excellent efficiency of their vehicles to be a bonus and simply feel good that they can contribute to society in such a way as well?

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