Plug-In Electric Vehicles Gain Traction

Commentary by Carrie Madren

Imagine making fewer—or zero—stops at the gas station. Instead, you simply drive home and plug your car into your house to charge up overnight. On top of that, your car emits no air pollution. Within the next decade, such fueling ease could be commonplace. New technology is just breaking into our markets and communities: plug-in electric vehicles.

Currently, drivers have two plug-in choices: plug-in hybrids with small gasoline engines to assist the battery, and fully electric vehicles. Plug-in hybrids that have been converted from conventional hybrids can achieve 100 miles per gallon or more; some all-electric vehicles can go up to 300 miles on a single charge.

As new federal rules go into effect—requiring that new cars reach 39 miles per gallon and light trucks reach 30 miles per gallon by 2016—it seems like a prime time to move away from oil consumption. Plug-in electric cars may be one feasible step to curbing our gasoline gluttony.

Currently, some 70 percent of our oil goes to transportation, with two-thirds of that consumed by passenger vehicles. A study by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that if 75 percent of the cars, pick-up trucks, SUVs and vans in the U.S. ran on electricity, oil use would be reduced by about one third, or an amount equal tofour times that produced from offshore drilling in the U.S. each year).

But before electric cars become widely accepted, a charging infrastructure needs to be developed. Drivers will need plug-in charging stations where they can power up their cars when they are out and about or traveling. Such outlet sites or charging stations could be publicly or privately owned.

One enterprising Maryland business, Sema Connect, has already jumped ahead by selling plug-in vehicle charging stations that can be installed at businesses or facilities and that charge customers by the kilowatt. The company also makes software that helps drivers find the nearest charging station.

When electric vehicles power up, they draw from the larger regional electrical grid. America’s current electric system could support 73 percent of a U.S. electric vehicle fleet, according to a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The technology is here—plug-in cars are already on the road. More cars are coming: nearly every major auto manufacturer already has an all-electric model in development. We’ll see these new models hitting roads around the world within the next three years, though we’ve yet to see which electric car make and model will emerge as the first mass-produced vehicle. Most plug-in cars can charge in a normal garage wall outlet, and new rapid-charge technology can fill a 100-mile battery in less than 30 minutes.

Helping plug-in vehicles make the jump from niche market to mass market will require public investment, according to Environment Maryland. Governments and private companies can take the lead in purchasing fleets.

The new plug-in technology seems promising for air pollution. All-electric vehicles produce no tailpipe pollution when running on electricity. But do the zero tailpipe emissions simply shift pollution to the power plants? Researchers are still figuring out what’s best for our air quality.

Converting 40 percent of U.S. cars to plug-in hybrids by 2030 would reduce smog for 61 percent of Americans, and would decrease soot for 82 percent of the population—though it would increase air pollution for three percent—according to the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition, more than 40 recent studies show that plug-in cars produce less carbon dioxide than gasoline-powered cars, according to a 2010 report released by Environment Maryland. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that an electric car fueled by unused capacity in the current electric system would emit 27 percent less global warming pollution than a car fueled by gasoline, and would reduce global warming pollution in almost every area of the country.

However, in another Natural Resources Defense Council report, if a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle’s electrical charge comes from present-day coal power, the plug-in would have higher global warming pollution compared to a non-pluggable hybrid electric vehicle.

Most research on plug-in electric vehicles points to one conclusion: while electric vehicles will help wean us off air-polluting gasoline, they aren’t the last piece to our energy puzzle. We still need a cleaner electricity grid to power these cars, our homes, businesses and municipalities. Regions where coal plants supply most of the electricity may have little, or nothing, to gain until state and national policies require cleaner forms of fuel. Powering cars on clean electricity—such as wind and solar power—would do away with most of the air pollution emissions from cars and power plants.

In that scenario, we all breathe easier.

Carrie Madren writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake life and sustainable living. She lives in Olney, Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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