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Posts Tagged ‘Lithium-ion Batteries’

DAN NEIL, The Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2009

6a00d8341c630a53ef011572539daa970b-320wiIn person, Carlos Ghosn, CEO and all-around-savior of Renault-Nissan, does not strike anyone as an Earth-hugging counterculture type – the man’s shoe collection is probably worth more than a Brentwood mansion.  You cannot find a bigger arch-capitalist anywhere. So it must be said, Ghosn’s embrace of electric-vehicle technology means something: If EV’s weren’t on the threshold of being practical and profitable, if there weren’t a powerful business case, you have to assume Ghosn wouldn’t go near them.

Instead, Ghosn has thrown his company into a full-on EV mobilization. This first results of that effort debuted August 2, 2009, when Nissan unveiled the LEAF, a five-seat compact, all-electric hatchback with lithium-ion batteries (24 kWh energy storage and max output of 90kW), giving the car a top speed of 90 mph and nominal range of 100 miles – a magic number, Nissan figures, in Americans’ driving psychology. The car’s electric motor generates 80 kW (107 horsepower). Depending on how you define your terms, the LEAF will be the first mass-market EV sold in the U.S. since the 1920s.

The car will be produced in Japan and at Nissan’s facility in Smyrna, Tennessee.

The LEAF will also feature IT connectivity, so that, for instance, drivers can use mobile phones to reset charging or even turn on the air-conditioning. The IT function will also help Nissan monitor the health and wellbeing of it its early fleet of EV’s. Recharging will take less than a half-hour (to 80% charge) using a high-capacity charger, Nissan says, and about eight hours using a home charger running at 200 Volts. Nissan is working with a half-dozen municipalities and other agencies around the country to develop the quick-charge infrastructure.

With the Volt, Mitsubishi’s IMiev and Nissan’s LEAF coming onto the U.S. market in the next 18 months, the infrastructure issue will begin to dominate the EV debate. Simply put, the cars will become less of a technical hurdle than places to plug them in.

As for the LEAF, the biggest unknown yet is cost. Nissan officials have quietly hinted at a price less than $30,000 retail (that’s before any tax credits), the goal being to make the EV a no-cost option. That would be the LEAF’s greatest trick.

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ALAN OHNSMAN and MAKIKO KITAMURA, Bloomberg, August 12, 2009

honda-clarityHonda Motor Co. is backing hydrogen power for the cars of the future, a stance at odds with the Obama administration’s decision to drop automotive fuel-cell technology in favor of battery-run vehicles.

“Fuel-cell cars will become necessary,” said Takashi Moriya, head of Tokyo-based Honda’s group developing the technology. “We’re positioning it as the ultimate zero-emission car.”

Honda, the only carmaker leasing fuel-cell autos to individuals, opened a production line last year in Tochigi prefecture to make 200 FCX Clarity sedans. The Energy Department sought to eliminate hydrogen-station funding and instead lend $1.6 billion to Nissan Motor Co. and $465 million to Tesla Motors Inc. to build electric cars, and give $2.4 billion in grants to lithium-ion battery makers.

“Honda has a propensity to think very long term,” said Ed Kim, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, California. “It’s also part of the company culture that if they’ve made a decision they think is correct, they’ll really stick with it.”

Honda isn’t alone. Toyota Motor Corp., Daimler AG, General Motors Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. say hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element, is among the few options to replace oil as a low-carbon transportation fuel.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in May his department would “be moving away” from hydrogen as it’s unlikely the U.S. can convert to the fuel even after 20 years. Nissan Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn predicts battery cars may grab 10% of global auto sales by 2020. Honda hasn’t announced plans for a battery-electric car.

Fuel Costs

Hydrogen, made mainly for industrial use from natural gas, costs about $5 to $10 per kilogram for vehicles in California, more than double an equivalent amount of gasoline. Fuel-cell cars also have at least double the efficiency of gasoline models, with Clarity averaging 60 miles per kilogram.

The Energy Department estimates future prices for hydrogen will fall to $2 to $3 a kilogram, Toyota said on Aug. 6.

The fuel can also be made from solar and wind power and even human waste.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda said Aug. 5 his company plans consumer sales of fuel-cell cars within six years. Toyota, like Honda, is making “exponential progress” with the technology, Justin Ward, manager of Toyota’s U.S. advanced powertrain program, said in an interview.

Battery cars are further along in the market. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. started selling the i-MiEV last month. Tesla sells the $109,000 Roadster and Nissan unveiled its electric Leaf this month, with sales to start in Japan and the U.S. next year.

Fueling Time

Honda says hydrogen vehicles match the refueling style drivers are used to: filling up in minutes at a service station. Nissan’s Leaf recharges fully in 30 minutes with a fast-charger, or up to 16 hours on a household outlet, said Tetsuro Sasaki, senior manager of Nissan’s battery test group.

A budget crisis slowed plans for more hydrogen stations in California, home to the biggest fleet of cars using the fuel. At the federal level, Chu sought $333.3 million in May for battery and advanced gasoline autos in the 2010 budget, up 22%. Hydrogen funds were cut 60% to $68 million, slashing money that would have gone to transportation projects.

The Clarity is available in the U.S. only in Los Angeles, where drivers can use as many as 16 hydrogen stations. The 5-passenger car has a top speed of 100 miles an hour and goes 240 miles (386 kilometers), more than double the 100-mile range of Nissan’s compact electric car. Through July, Honda leased cars to 10 drivers for $600 a month.

Filling Stations

The need for a network of hydrogen filling stations is a problem.

“We cannot do infrastructure alone,” said Moriya. “We’ve been developing the cars on our own without government support.”

The Senate and House voted in July to restore the funds. President Barack Obama must approve the final budget.

Honda and Toyota will have to reduce production costs to win over consumers. Fuel cells need platinum — a precious metal that costs more than $1,200 an ounce — and current durability is half that of gasoline engines, according to Moriya.

Honda plans to offer hydrogen-fueled cars at prices comparable to midsize gasoline autos by 2020, down from a company estimate that Clarity’s 2005 hand-built predecessor cost about $1 million. Moriya wouldn’t discuss the Clarity’s price.

Expensive Platinum

Honda engineers in Tochigi are trying to trim costs. For 13 months, technicians have worked in a semiconductor-style clean- room, coating rolls of plastic film for fuel-cell membranes. Nearby, a press stamps stainless-steel plates that will grip the material. Hundreds of the cells are then sealed in a metal case, forming the fuel-cell stack.

Honda’s hydrogen push has been undermined by plunging sales in the U.S., its main market. Last quarter, profit at Japan’s second-largest carmaker fell 96% to 7.5 billion yen ($79 million). Its research budget is 515 billion yen this fiscal year, down 8.5%. Funds for fuel cells were cut and some spending shifted to other “priorities,” Moriya said, without elaborating.

Honda probably spends “a few tens of billions of yen” a year on fuel cells, said analyst Mamoru Kato at Tokai Tokyo Research Center in Nagoya.

“Maybe, just maybe, fuel cells will be the future,” said Edwin Merner, who helps manage about $3 billion at Atlantis Investment Research in Tokyo. “And if you’re not in there, then you have a big disadvantage.”

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KIMBERLY S. JOHNSON, Huffington Post, August 11, 2009

GM Chevy Volt MileageGeneral Motors said Tuesday its Chevrolet Volt electric car could get 230 mpg in city driving, making it the first American vehicle to achieve triple-digit fuel economy if that figure is confirmed by federal regulators.

But when the four-door family sedan hits showrooms late next year, its efficiency will come with a steep sticker price: $40,000.

Still, the Volt’s fuel efficiency in the city would be four times more than the popular Toyota Prius hybrid, the most efficient car now sold in the U.S.

Most automakers are working on similar designs, but GM would offer the first mainstream plug-in with the Volt, which seats four and was introduced at the 2007 Detroit auto show.

The Volt will join a growing fleet of cars and trucks powered by systems other than internal combustion engines.

Unlike the Prius and other traditional hybrids, the Volt is powered by an electric motor and a battery pack with a 40-mile range. After that, a small internal combustion engine kicks in to generate electricity for a total range of 300 miles. The battery pack can be recharged from a standard home outlet.

Hybrids use a small internal combustion engine combined with a high-powered battery to boost fuel efficiency. Toyota’s Prius – which starts at about $22,000 – gets 51 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway. The number of all-electric vehicles available to U.S. consumers remains limited. The Tesla Roadster, a high-end sports car with a range of 224 miles, is perhaps the best known. But its $100,000-plus price tag keeps it out of reach of all but the wealthiest drivers.

The company is working on an electric family sedan that will be priced considerably less.

Nissan Motor Co. unveiled its first electric car, the Leaf, earlier this month. Nissan said the vehicle will go on sale in Japan, the U.S. and Europe next year.

Edmunds.com, an auto Web site, cast doubt on whether drivers can expect 230 mpg from the Volt since fuel efficiency also depends on driving style.

Volt drivers who cruise sensibly on smooth roads without much cargo – and who avoid exceeding 20 or 30 miles between charges – might fill up only rarely. But “for most people, it is not realistic to expect that kind of mileage in real-world driving,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with the Web site.

General Motors Co. is touting the 230 mpg figure following early tests that used draft guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency for calculating the mileage of extended-range electric vehicles.

The EPA guidelines, developed with help from automakers, figure that cars such as the Volt will travel more on straight electricity in the city than on the highway. If drivers operate the Volt for less than 40 miles, in theory they could do so without using a drop of gasoline.

Highway mileage estimates for the Volt based on the EPA’s methodology have yet to be released.

“We are confident the highway (mileage) will be a triple-digit,” GM CEO Fritz Henderson said.

The EPA conducts testing to determine the mileage posted on new car stickers. The agency said in a statement Tuesday that it has not tested a Volt “and therefore cannot confirm the fuel economy values claimed by GM.”

The EPA is working with the Society of Automotive Engineers and state and federal officials to develop testing procedures to measure the fuel efficiency of advanced vehicles, according to a draft outline of the proposal obtained by The Associated Press.

The plan could be released later this year.

It was not immediately clear how GM reached the 230 mpg in city driving, but industry officials estimated the automaker’s calculation took into consideration the Volt traveling 40 miles on the electric battery and then achieving about 50 mpg when the engine kicked in.

Although Henderson would not give details on pricing, the first-generation Volt is expected to cost nearly $40,000, making it cost-prohibitive to many people even if gasoline returns to $4 per gallon.

The price of the sporty-looking sedan is expected to drop with future generations of the Volt, but GM has said government tax credits of up to $7,500 and the savings on fuel could make it more affordable, especially at 230 mpg.

“We get a little cautious about trying to forecast what fuel prices will do,” said Tony Posawatz, GM’s vehicle line director for the Volt. “We achieved this number, and if fuel prices go up, it certainly does get more attractive even in the near-term generation.”

The mileage figure could vary as the guidelines are refined and the Volt gets further along in the manufacturing process, Posawatz said.

Chrysler Group, Ford Motor Co. and Daimler AG are all developing plug-ins and electric cars, and Toyota Motor Corp. is working on a plug-in version of its gas-electric hybrid system.

GM has produced about 30 test Volts so far and is making 10 a week, Henderson said during a presentation at the company’s technical center in the Detroit suburb of Warren.

Henderson said charging the Volt will cost about 40 cents a day, at about 5 cents per kilowatt hour.

GM is nearly halfway through building about 80 test Volts that will look and behave like the production model, and testing is running on schedule, Posawatz said.

Two critical areas – battery life and the electronic switching between battery and engine power – are still being refined, but the car is on schedule to reach showrooms late in 2010, he said.

GM is simulating tests to make sure the new lithium-ion batteries last 10 years, Posawatz said, as well as testing battery performance in extremely hot and cold climates.

“We’re further along, but we’re still quite a ways from home,” he said. “We’re developing quite a knowledge base on all this stuff. Our confidence is growing.”

The other area of new technology, switching between battery and engine power, is proceeding well, he said, with engineers just fine-tuning the operations.

“We’re very pleased with the transition from when it’s driving EV (electric vehicle) to when the engine and generator kick in,” he said.

GM also is finishing work on the power cord, which will be durable enough that it can survive being run over by the car. The Volt, he said, will have software on board so it can be programmed to begin and end charging during off-peak electrical use hours.

It will be easy for future Volt owners living in rural and suburban areas to plug in their cars at night, but even Henderson recognized the challenge urban, apartment dwellers, or those who park their cars on the street might have recharging the Volt. There could eventually be charging stations set up by a third-party to meet such a demand, Henderson said.

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The Associated Press, May 25, 2009

zero-pollution-motors-carMost car companies are racing to bring electric vehicles to the market. But one startup is skipping the high-tech electronics, making cars whose energy source is pulled literally out of thin air.

Zero Pollution Motors is trying to bring a car to U.S. roads by early 2011 that’s powered by a combination of compressed air and a small conventional engine. ZPM Chief Executive Shiva Vencat said the ultimate goal is a price tag between $18,000 and $20,000, fuel economy equivalent to 100 miles per gallon and a tailpipe that emits nothing but air at low enough speeds.

Elsewhere in the world, the technology is already gaining speed. The French startup Motor Development International, which licensed the technology to ZPM, unveiled a new air-powered car at the Geneva Auto Show in March. Airlines KLM and Air France are starting to test the bubble-shaped AirPod this month for use as transportation around airports.

Engineering experts, however, are skeptical of the technology, saying it is clouded by the caveat that compressing air is notoriously energy intensive. ”Air compressors are one of the least efficient machines to convert electricity to work,” said Harold Kung, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University. ”Why not use the electricity directly, as in electric cars? From an energy utilization point of view, the compressed (air) car does not make sense.”

As Vencat spells it out, the ”air cars” plug into a wall outlet, allowing an on-board compressor to pressurize the car’s air tank to 4,500 pounds per square inch. It takes about four hours to get the tank to full pressure, then the air is then released gradually to power the car’s pistons. At speeds less than 35 mph, the car relies entirely on the air tank and emits only cold air. At faster speeds, a small conventionally fueled engine kicks in to run a heater that warms the air and speeds its release. The engine also refills the air tank, extending the range and speed.

The technology behind the car was developed by the French race car engineer Guy Negre, head of Motor Development International. Besides ZPM, Negre has licensed the technology to Indian car giant Tata Motors and others. Many of the specifications of ZPM’s car are still speculative, but Vencat expects it to go about 20 miles on compressed air alone, and hundreds more after the engine kicks in, with a top speed of 96 mph.

The technology shouldn’t sound too outlandish, Vencat said. It’s similar to the internal-combustion engines in conventional cars — the main difference is the fuel. ”Every single car you see out there, except an electric car, is a compressed-air car,” he said. ”It takes air in the chamber and it pushes the piston, and the only way you push the piston is through pressure.”

James Van de Ven, a mechanical engineering assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has studied compressed-air technology, said air compressors allow you to recover only 25-30% of the energy used to compress the air. The rest is lost through heat, air leakage and other forms of waste, he said. While that’s still slightly better a gasoline engine, it pales compared with the efficiencies of other alternative-fuel powertrains, like those in hybrid-electric cars, which have an efficiency closer to 80%, Van de Ven said.

A look at some of ZPM’s specifications illustrates the issue. With four hours of charging, the air car’s 5.5-kilowatt compressor would eat up 22 kilowatt-hours of electricity. That means the same energy used to turn on 10 100-watt light bulbs for 22 hours would allow the car to travel 20 miles. By comparison, General Motors Corp. has said its Chevrolet Volt will use about 8 kilowatt-hours of energy to fully charge, and it will be able to travel 40 miles on battery power alone.

George Haley, business professor at the University of New Haven, said U.S. safety regulations could be another obstacle given the air car’s tiny size and light weight. Vencat said he gets such criticism ”from the whole wide world” and pays it little mind. He counters that the car is cleaner than any internal combustion engine and remarkably simpler — and cheaper — than more advanced powertrains currently under development. ”The big difference is that the (Chevrolet) Volt needs the battery,” Vencat said. The Volt’s massive lithium-ion battery is a big part of the reason it is expected to cost about $40,000 when it goes on sale late next year. He acknowledges the difficulties with getting the car out quickly but said he is lining up investors. ”You know, we’ve got a lot of people who wanted the car yesterday,” he said.

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DAVID MORRIS, AlterNet, August 3, 2008

Al Gore’s heroic speech challenging us to make our electrical system 100% renewable promised it would simultaneously address three major crises: the weak economy, catastrophic climate change and the dire national security problems inherent in our dependence on imported oil.

He got two out of three right. A crash renewable electricity initiative would provide an immediate boost to our economy and could slow climate change, since electricity accounts for about a third of our overall greenhouse gas emissions.

But it would do little to enhance our national security.

Oil generates only 3% of our electricity. Therefore a 100% renewable electricity system does little to reduce our oil dependency — unless that electricity is used to substitute for oil in our transportation system.

Al Gore knows this. In other venues he has mentioned electrified vehicles. But he needs to make electrifying our transportation the central element in his 10-year plan, for at least two reasons.

One is that it is an initiative that would prove far more compelling to the vast majority of Americans. Climate change is abstract, and the strategies to resolve it are remote. Our relationship to our vehicles, on the other hand, is both concrete and visceral. We desperately want to get off oil, especially when gasoline prices rise to $4 per gallon.

But it is more than a pocketbook issue for many of us; it is a moral issue. Americans hate being dependent for our mobility, and therefore for our livelihoods, on countries often hostile to our way of life. Electric cars promise to end that dependency.

And as a bonus, with rooftop solar cells, we can become independent not only from OPEC but from remote and often unresponsive utility companies. We can become energy producers as well as energy consumers.

And then there is the plain fact that once significant numbers of electric vehicles are on the roads, word of mouth will be a powerful marketing tool. The reason? As Marc Geller, a longtime advocate of electric vehicles, told me a year ago as we were traveling up Route 1 in Northern California in his all-electric small SUV, “Anyone who drives an electric car falls in love with an electric car.” That love affair will be aided and abetted by a population eager to embrace a homegrown fuel and vehicles that offer quicker propulsion, a quiet drive and zero tailpipe emissions.

There is another persuasive reason for Gore to focus on an electrified transportation system: It is simply physically impossible to convert our entire electricity system to renewables in 10 years, but it is possible to convert our entire ground transportation system to renewable electricity within a similar time frame. That would require a national mobilization, to be sure, but it can be done.

Converting our electric system fully to renewables would require us to shut down about 80% of our current electricity-generating capacity, much of it low-cost, already paid off and capable of generating electricity for another 25 years or more. Moreover, to reach very high penetration rates of renewable electricity would require that we overcome the principal shortcoming of wind and sunlight: intermittency.

To electrify our transportation system, on the other hand, we could displace rather than shut down the existing system, and we would be replacing a physical stock with a relatively short life expectancy. Given the average seven-year life expectancy of existing vehicles and the high probability that we would offer an incentive for owners of older gasoline-powered vehicles to trade them in, new electric vehicles could constitute the entire fleet within a decade, and that doesn’t take into account the potential for conversions of existing vehicles.

Powering 100% of our transportation system would require about 30% of the electricity generated in 2006. With a massive effort, using a combination of solar and wind power, we could generate about that much electricity by 2020.

The fact that we can even contemplate the rapid electrification of transportation is a testament to 20 years of grassroots activism at the local and state level. The enactment by Congress of a renewable electricity tax incentive in 1992 was important, but the wind energy industry did not take off until states began to mandate renewable electricity. Today more than 25 states boast such mandates. A recent report put together by a task force of California leaders urges the state to double its renewable electricity mandate to 50% by 2020.

We have done a great deal, from the bottom up, to increase the supply of renewable electricity. Less well known is how much we have done on the demand side of the equation, that is, the use of electricity in transportation.

A brief historical review might be in order here. The first electric utilities were born largely to serve the transportation sector, which in the late 19th century meant urban streetcars. Until 1920, transportation remained the nation’s utilities’ single largest customer. And as the birth of the automobile age began, electric vehicles were by far the most popular. In the late 1890s electric vehicles (EVs) outsold gasoline cars 10 to 1. Many of the first car dealerships were exclusively for EVs.

The future of transportation abruptly changed in the 1910s. Mass production of gasoline-powered cars dramatically lowered their price. The introduction of automatic ignition removed the difficult and dangerous task of cranking to start the gasoline engine. Meanwhile the infrastructure for electricity was almost nonexistent outside city boundaries, limiting the utility of electric vehicles.

For the next 70 years, electric transportation all but disappeared.

Then, in 1990, two events occurred to revive the prospects of electrified vehicles. One was a private sector initiative; the other a public sector initiative. One was technology driven; the other politically driven.

In 1990, Sony introduced the lithium ion battery. Its higher energy density quickly made it the battery of choice for electronic equipment. Over the next 10 years, as portable electronic equipment demanded more powerful and longer-lasting batteries, the lithium ion battery industry saw many technological advances. In the last five years, many variations of that battery have begun to vie for supremacy as the foundation for a new generation of electric vehicles.

The public initiative was California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate. Enacted in 1990, the mandate required that 2% of all new vehicles sold by major car manufacturers in that state be all-electric by 1998, and 10% by 2003. By 1994, 12 additional states had adopted its mandate.

If that mandate had remained in place, more than 10 million EVs might be traveling our roads today. But as the marvelous documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” reveals in depressing detail, the ZEV mandate was weakened in the 1990s and finally killed in 2003.

Notwithstanding its demise, the mandate did result in several important and positive outcomes. One was the hybrid vehicle, whose development was in part an outgrowth of the vigorous developments in electrical and electronic vehicle systems spurred by the ZEV mandate. Another was the advance in large-format battery technology after many decades of stagnation. The new Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery replaced the lead acid battery for ZEVs sold in California, and by the late 1990s, a second-generation NiMH promised to last the life of the car, almost halving the capital cost of an electric vehicle. (Tragically, patent disputes have stifled NiMH development.)

Perhaps the most important enduring legacy of the ZEV mandate was the creation of tens of thousands of Californians who experienced the pleasure of driving or being driven in full-size electric vehicles capable of high-speed, long-distance highway driving. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” portrays what seemed to be a futile grassroots effort to stop car companies from taking back their EVs and crushing them.

Yet even as the movie ends, the uprising began to gain traction. GM proved incorrigible. But creative and extensive protests here and abroad persuaded Ford and then Toyota to cease crushing their vehicles and begin offering them for sale. Reportedly, Chris Paine, the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is making a new movie titled “Who Saved the Electric Car?” It promises to be a very uplifting sequel.

At its peak, the ZEV mandate brought some 5,500 electric vehicles onto California roads, ranging from Ford’s small Think Car to Toyota’s small SUV, the RAV4, to Ford’s light pickup truck, the Ranger.

After the protests ended and the dust cleared, more than 800 electric vehicles were saved, most of them RAV4s. Some have now traveled more than 110,000 miles, validating both the durability of the batteries and the vehicles’ remarkably low maintenance costs.

The EV movement was aided and abetted by the introduction, in 2004, of the second iteration of the Toyota Prius. The best-selling car sported a mysterious blank button on the dashboard. Via the Internet, Americans were told that in Japan the button was operational. Pushing it allowed the car to travel solely by electricity for a mile or so. Engineers in Texas and California quickly learned how to convert the Prius to drive solely on electricity, and they added sufficient battery capacity to travel 10 and then 20 and then 30 miles before recharging was needed.

Several start-ups began to offer plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) conversions. Felix Kramer, the Paul Revere of the movement, spent the next two years trying to convince national reporters, members of Congress, Silicon Valley businesses and even EV advocates, many of whom believed a car with a gas engine was a sacrilege, that a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle could become the foundation for a transition to an electrified transportation sector. Kramer convinced a leading car industry reporter based in Michigan to run a story, which quickly translated into dozens of stories in the national media. In the spring of 2006, he spent $15,000 to transport his own converted Prius PHEV to DC and allow several senators and leading policymakers and opinion leaders to literally kick the tires and drive in it.

At the time fewer than a dozen Prius conversions existed in the entire country. But the work of organizations like Plug-In America and Plug-In Partners and Kramer’s own CalCars began to seize the popular imagination.

In just the last 12 months, the dam against electrified vehicles seems to have broken. For the first time since 1910, an oil-free transportation system is on the table.

New announcements by businesses large and small have become almost a weekly occurrence. Hymotion, a small company affiliated with Internet giant Google and the MIT spin-off, battery maker A123, has begun to roll out a nationwide network of certified plug-in hybrid converters.

Toyota, which for the first six years of Prius sales used the advertising tag line, “You Never Have to Plug It In,” announced in 2007 an abrupt change of mind. In 2010, Toyota will begin leasing plug-in Priuses in Japan. GM, which had originally loudly and sarcastically dismissed the concept of hybrids, announced it will offer a plug-in hybrid with a 40-mile driving range in 2010. Nissan, VW, Renault and other car manufacturers have all announced their intention to introduce electric vehicles in the same time frame.

In July 2008, San Jose announced the beginning of a network of easily accessible and useable EV-charging stations in parking garages around the city. San Francisco followed with its own request for proposals for a similar citywide network.

On the political front, the current energy bill stalled in Congress because of Republican opposition: The bill contains a tax incentive for plug-ins sufficient to make the first cost of such vehicles nearly competitive with conventional vehicles.

The energy bill signed into law just before Christmas in 2007 includes a little-noticed but very powerful incentive for all-electric vehicles. For purposes of meeting the new higher fuel efficiency standards, all-electric vehicles will be awarded an efficiency rating based largely on the amount of gasoline displaced, which translates into an overall fuel efficiency rating for a typical mid-size EV of about 350 miles per gallon.

And on the customer level, gasoline prices of $4 per gallon have generated a palpable hunger for alternatives and changed the comparative economics of EVs and gasoline-powered vehicles. Driving a mile on electricity today costs about 3 cents while traveling a mile on gasoline costs about 15 cents. This can translate into annual fuel savings of more than $1,000.

The advent of EVs may change not only the contours of our transportation system but also the structure of our electricity system. The unique characteristic of the electricity system is that the product must be instantaneously transmitted and no storage capacity is available. This is the reason Enron and others were able to manipulate the system in deregulated California 10 years ago, a manipulation that led to the near bankruptcy of the state and continues to burden the state budget.

The prospect of a large battery capacity contained in tens of millions of electrified vehicles could be, in the words of one utility executive, “a game changer.” Utilities, eager to nurture a potentially large new customer, are also vigorously assessing how this new electric capacity can be integrated into the existing distribution and subtransmission parts of the grid system.

Some studies have estimated that utilities could pay an EV owner several thousand dollars a year to tap into the car’s batteries when needed for energy used to keep the local grid stable. The vehicle would be available for such tapping a considerable percentage of the time. A typical vehicle sits idle some 23 of 24 hours a day. Millions sit in commuter parking lots for eight hours a day.

A large storage capacity could also ameliorate the intermittency problem of renewable energy, which in turn could allow a much higher proportion of renewable electricity on the grid. One study of the Sacramento, Calif., electricity network concluded that a significant penetration of battery-powered vehicles could boost the potential wind energy contribution to about 50 percent of total electricity generation.

EVs might spur a profound relocalization of our electricity system. I discovered the intimate link between electric vehicles and decentralized electricity in the spring of 2007, when I spent a week in California driving or being driven in a variety of electrified vehicles, from glorified golf carts to PHEVs to the “0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds” Tesla. I was invited by a national travel magazine to investigate the future of the car based on my 2003 report on the subject, “A Better Way.” Everyone I met who had an EV or a PHEV also had solar cells on their roofs. And why not? Not only does it make them more energy self-reliant, but the value of the electricity generated by the solar array is far higher when it displaces gasoline than when it displaces conventional electricity.

Indeed, a symbiotic relationship between car and house may be emerging. California has time-of-day tariffs under which electricity consumed at peak hours, say, midday on a hot summer’s day, can be several times more expensive than electricity consumed during nighttime odd-peak hours. If EV owners must use electricity at peak times, they can tap into the stored electricity in their vehicles. The EV serves as a source of backup power for the house. More than one EV owner boasted about how his was the only house with lights on when the neighborhood suffered a blackout.

If Congress enacts its electrified vehicle incentive, we should see an immediate surge in conversions and new PHEV and EV sales. In 2010 several EV and PHEV models should be available from major car companies, albeit in small quantities, and these should allow us to gauge the costs of an all-electric transportation system.

If I were Al Gore, I would ask Congress not only to pass the EV incentive but also to phase in a mandate for an all-renewable-fueled transportation fleet, perhaps beginning with 5% of all new vehicles by 2012 and moving toward 100% by 2020. A call to arms would resonate with the American public. And as both consumers and citizens, Americans could quickly translate their support into a mass movement to finally eliminate our addiction to oil.

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CHUCK SQUATRIGLIA, Wired, June 11, 2008

Toyota, rightly or wrongly, is widely considered the greenest automaker, and the company hopes to solidify its hold on the title and move beyond oil through a sweeping plan to produce cleaner, more efficient cars — beginning with a plug-in hybrid it will produce by 2010.

It’s no secret Toyota’s been working on a plug-in hybrid to compete against the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt, but Wednesday’s announcement sets a firm deadline and makes it clear Toyota has no plans of ceding the green mantle to General Motors. It also underscores how quickly the race to build a viable mass-market electric car is heating up.

The company’s ambitious “low-carbon” agenda includes cranking out 1 million hybrids a year and eventually offering hybrid versions of every model it sells. In the short-term, Toyota says it will produce more fuel efficient gasoline and diesel engines and push alternative fuels like cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel. It’s also pumping big money into lithium-ion batteries. With fuel prices going through the roof and auto sales going through the floor because of it, Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe says the auto industry has no choice but to move beyond petroleum.

“Without focusing on measures to address global warming and energy issues, there can be no future for our auto business,” he told reporters in Tokyo, adding, “Our view is that oil production will peak in the near future. We need to develop power train(s) for alternative energy sources.”

Watanabe’s reference to peak oil echoes that of GM CEO Rick Wagoner, who in explaining the company’s decision to shut down four truck factories said rising fuel prices and mounting demand for efficient cars are “structural, not cyclical.” In other words, the two biggest automakers in the world realize petroleum’s days are numbered.

That’s not to say the wells will run dry anytime soon or the bulk of Toyota’s cars won’t rely upon internal combustion for many years to come. “People often ask us whether the vehicles of the future will be hybrid vehicles or clean diesel cars or electric vehicles,” Watanabe said. “Our answer is that it will not be one technology because energy situations vary from one market to another.”

Still, Toyota is betting heavily on batteries to increasingly augment gasoline. The world’s leading producer of hybrids — worldwide sales of the Prius recently topped 1 million, 10 years after its introduction — wants to stay there by producing that many hybrids each year “as early in the 2010s as possible.” Looking further into the future, Watanabe says Toyota will introduce hybrid versions of every car in its line-up sometime between 2020 and 2029.

Reaching those goals will require bringing down the cost of lithium-ion batteries, which currently cost $1,000 per kilowatt hour, according to Tom Turrentine of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC-Davis.

Toyota is joining longtime battery partner Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. in launching a program to develop batteries it says will outperform lithium-ion batteries. It’s assigning 50 engineers to the project, according to Reuters, and plans to begin producing batteries next year. Full production is slated for 2010, although Toyota isn’t saying how many it might build. It also plans to continue building the nickel-metal hydride batteries it currently uses in hybrids.

The third-generation Prius, due next year, will use NiMH batteries. The plug-in hybrid coming in 2010 will use lithium-ion batteries and will “be geared toward fleet customers in Japan, (the) United States and Europe,” the company said. There’s no word on when it might be offered to the rest of us, but Toyota promises to “accelerate development of small electric vehicles for mass production.”

Toyota isn’t giving up on internal combustion, though. It’s already revamping its engines to make them more efficient, developing 1.3- and 2.5-liter engines that will propel much of its line-up by 2010. The smaller of the two is fitted with a start-stop system to maximize fuel economy. Toyota also plans to roll out a six-speed manual transmission this fall. It’s also working with outside partners to develop cellulosic ethanol from yeast and diesel fuel from biomass. And, like everyone else in the industry, Toyota is pushing hydrogen and its FCHV-adv fuel-cell vehicle.

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MICHELINE MAYNARD, The New York Times, January 14, 2008

The Toyota Motor Corporation, which leads the world’s automakers in sales of hybrid-electric vehicles, announced Sunday night that it would build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010.

The move puts Toyota in direct competition with General Motors Corporation, which has announced plans to sell its own plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, sometime around 2010.

Katsuaki Watanabe, the president of Toyota, announced the company’s plans at the Detroit auto show as part of a series of environmental steps.

Mr. Watanabe said Toyota, best known for its Prius hybrid car, would develop a fleet of plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries, instead of the nickel-metal hydride batteries that power the Prius and other Toyota models.

Plug-in hybrids differ from the current hybrid vehicles in that they can be recharged externally, from an ordinary power outlet. In a conventional hybrid the battery is recharged from power generated by its wheels.

Mr. Watanabe said the lithium-ion fleet would be made available first to Toyota’s commercial customers around the world, like government agencies and corporations, including some in the United States. He did not say when they would be available to consumers.

The Volt also is set to run on lithium-ion batteries, which are more expensive than the batteries currently used by Toyota, but which can potentially power the vehicle for a longer time.

Additionally, Toyota said it planned to develop a new hybrid-electric car specifically for its Lexus division as well as another new hybrid for the Toyota brand. It said it would unveil both at the 2009 Detroit show.

Mr. Watanabe also said Toyota planned to offer diesel engines for its Tundra pickup truck and the Sequoia sport utility vehicle “in the near future,” but was not more specific.

Some environmental groups have pushed for plug-in hybrids, called PHEVs, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, as a way to save on gasoline, thus curbing emissions.

But some experts say plug-ins may not be the ultimate answer to cutting pollution, if the electricity used to charge them comes from coal-fired power plants.

That is also a concern to Toyota, which has asked researchers to determine not only whether consumers would be willing to pay for a plug-in, but also the effect it would have on the environment, James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales, said in an interview.

Nonetheless, G.M., Toyota and Ford Motor Company, the world’s three biggest car companies, all are developing plug-in hybrid vehicles. Along with the Volt, G.M. has said it plans to produce a plug-in version of its Saturn Vue hybrid. Ford has not yet given details of its plug-in hybrid, which it first discussed in 2006.

Indeed, Toyota executives initially questioned the practicality of plug-in hybrids, saying consumers preferred the convenience of hybrids that did not have to be recharged. Toyota has sold more than one million hybrids worldwide, including more than 800,000 Prius cars.

But the automaker announced last July that it was testing plug-in hybrids on public roads in Japan. It also is testing them in France, Toyota officials said Sunday, and it has given prototype versions of plug-in hybrid vehicles to university researchers in California.

Even before those test results are in, however, Toyota has offered plug-in hybrid test drives to journalists in Japan, California and Detroit, where a small fleet bearing the words “Toyota Plug-In Hybrid” traveled city streets on Sunday.

This plug-in hybrid — a version of the Prius, and not the vehicle Toyota announced it would build — differs from the Prius in four ways. It has two nickel-metal hydride batteries under the floor of its trunk, instead the conventional Prius’s single battery.

Unlike the Prius, which has a single fuel-filler door on the left side of the car, the plug-in model has another door on the right hand side that opens to reveal an outlet for the electrical charger. One end of the charger looks like a small fuel nozzle; the other end is a conventional three-pronged plug.

Each charge, which takes about four hours, uses the equivalent of 2.7 kilowatt hours of electricity, said Jaycie Chitwood, a senior strategic planner in Toyota’s advanced technologies group.

Inside the car, there is a button with the letters “EV” inside an outline of a car. If the driver pushes the button, the car reverts to electric vehicle mode, meaning the Prius is powered completely by its two batteries.

In electric mode, the Prius gets 99.9 miles a gallon, according to a gauge on a screen in the middle of the dashboard.

But it cannot go very far: the plug-in hybrid’s two batteries hold enough power for only seven miles, said Saúl Ibarra, a product specialist with Toyota who worked on developing the Prius.

By contrast, G.M. claims that the Volt will be able to hold a charge equal to 40 miles, after a six-hour charge.

Still, the electric mode of the Toyota plug-in is enough to start the car and run it until the engine reaches the point where it needs to tap the gasoline engine. The plug-in Prius can stay in electric mode until 62 miles per hour, versus around 30 miles per hour for the conventional Prius, Mr. Iba-rra said.

Despite its decision to step up its plug-in hybrid development, Toyota is not sure how much more consumers will want to pay for it, Mr. Lentz said. The Prius starts at $21,100. Some after-market companies are charging nearly that much to convert Prius models into plug-ins, he said.

Given that, it is more likely that Toyota would offer plug-in technology as an option on the Prius, at least in the short term, rather than switch all of its hybrids to plug-in models.

Ultimately, Toyota must determine “do people want to plug in their car?” Ms. Chitwood said.

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