Are Plug-In Hybrids the Answer to The Growing Environmental Problems?

Over the next couple of days, I will be writing about the different types of vehicles that people believe could ultimately help slow or reverse global warming.  I’d like to go over the pros and cons of each of the vehicles and talk about how they might be able to be a little more environmentally friendly than our current vehicles. 

Just as a side note before I get too much into this, I believe global warming is a very real phenomenon and that it has been caused solely by human beings.  Whether or not you agree with me isn’t of any significance, but I just felt compelled to give you a heads up that there will probably be some sort of slant in my writing.

Now that we’re past that, today I would like to talk about plug-in hybrid vehicles.  Essentially, plug-in hybrids combine the qualities of a normal hybrid car with many of the qualities of an electric car.  While plug-in hybrids still use gasoline, they are able to average double or triple the gas mileage of regular hybrids thanks to the additional battery capacity – which can be recharged by simply plugging the car into an electric socket.

For short trips or trips that don’t require fast acceleration or high speeds – like a trip to the grocery store – a fully charged plug-in hybrid will use only its batteries.  For longer trips, or trips that require higher speeds, the plug-in hybrid will still use batteries, but the regular engine will do a bulk of the work.

So, here’s a list of pros and cons that I pulled together from a couple of different resources:

Pros:

  • The technology is already available.
  • The infrastructure (i.e. gas stations) is already available.
  • It can be driven long distances thanks to the fact it’s still powered by gas.  One of the common complaints surrounding the electric car is the “limited” distance it can go between charges.
  • The plug-in hybrid can average well over 100 miles per gallon.
  • They’re quieter than regular cars, and they’re easier and cheaper to maintain.
  • Seems to be the next logical evolution for gas friendly vehicles.

Cons:

  • It still burns fuel, so it’s not a zero emissions vehicle.
  • The energy to charge the batteries has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is probably from a power plant that’s burning fossil fuels (i.e. polluting).
  • The batteries for plug-in hybrids require nickel, which is very environmentally unfriendly to mine from the earth.

Personally, I am very intregued by the plug-in hybrid and I think if you look at the mainstream acceptance of regular hybrids, I don’t think it takes a very big leap of faith to think that plug-in hybrids can become a popular, environmentally friendly vehicle.

For additional information regarding plug-in hybrids, check out CalCars.org and Wikipedia.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Well, I guess I’m on a bit of an environmental kick the last couple of days.  Last night I watched An Inconvenient Truth which I followed up tonight by watching Who Killed the Electric Car?, a look at what happened to the electric cars produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Essentially, the documentary centered around the origins and demise of General Motor’s EV1, an electric car that was seemingly on the verge of becoming an American phenomenon, only to have the rug pulled out from under it.  Obviously, this film wasn’t a true documentary as it was very slanted (i.e. very pro electric cars), but it still brought up a lot of interesting points.

Essentially, electric cars were around before internal combustion cars, and were actually the favored automobile in the early 20th century due to being quiet and exhaust free.  However, with the rise of Big Oil, along with the mass production practices and efficiencies of internal combustion cars, electric cars sort of fell by the wayside until California enacted radical “Zero Emission” legislation in the early 1990s.

It’s no secret that California has some of the world’s worst air quality and in order to combat the smog and health problems that were developing due to the poor air quality, the California State Legislature passed the “Zero Emission” law, which required a certain percentage of cars sold in California be zero emission.  This meant that the big car manufacturers needed to come up with an electric car – and quickly.

So, General Motors, Toyota, Ford, essentially all the big car manufacturers, began to roll out these electric cars, all while fighting California’s new “Zero Emission” law.  In the process of unveiling these vehicles, there seemed to be plenty of demand building, however, one thing would eventually lead to the other and by early 2004 the electric car had been officially killed.

The movie spends most of its time spreading the blame among several groups: the American Consumers, the American Federal Government, the car manufacturers, the California Air Resource Board and Big Oil were pointed out as the main culprits.

Anyway, I’ve probably already given away too much, so I’m not going to sit here and list the reasons why each of the aforementioned groups were to blame, but there are two statistics from the film that absolutely floored me and I think are important to share.

The first statistic shows the rise in combined annual profits of three of the world’s largest oil companies – ExxonMobil, Chevron-Texaco and ConocoPhillips:

2003 – $33 billion

2004 – $47 billion

2005 – $64 billion

2006 – $72 billion

Keep in mind all of this is happening as oil prices are rising.  When I saw this exponential increase in profits (up 115% in a four year span) all I could do was shake my head.

The other statistic that left me speechless was the tax breaks available to owners of hybrids and/or electric vehicles vs. owners of 6,000 pound SUVs.  In 2004, the tax break available to a person who drove a hybrid or electric vehicle was $4,000.  Not too bad, I mean, I’d take it.  That is until I saw that an owner of a 6,000 pound SUV could be entitled to a $100,000 tax break.  Yes, a six figure tax break for owning a gas guzzling highway tank.  Unbelievable.

Anyway, because I’m assuming you’ve visited this site because you have an interest in either getting better gas mileage or the environment in general, I would highly recommend that you rent or buy Who Killed the Electric Car?

Air Powered Cars?

I guess hybrid technology, E85 Ethanol and hydrogen aren’t the only viable options to help reduce our dependence on oil in order to get to and from in our cars.  It turns out that down the road (no pun intended) you may be “fueling” your car with air.

According to a report from CBS News, a father and son design team from France has been able to design a car that is able to run on tanks of compressed air – think of the same air tanks that scuba divers use.  The compressed air would be able to generate enough power to allow the car to sustain speeds of 55 miles per hour.

Considering the design team consists of a guy that designed engines for a Formula One team and a former engineer for Bugati (a very high class and expensive sports car manufacturer), it certainly seems like this car wasn’t quickly thrown together in someone’s garage.

Aside from helping to reduce dependence on oil and gasoline, these air powered vehicles wouldn’t produce any pollution or emissions and, according to the design team, would cost only $2 to travel 120 miles.

Unfortunately, while this seems like a great idea, these cars are probably years away from mass production – if they ever get there at all.

Is OPEC Lowering Prices to Hurt Alternative Fuels?

It appears that the conspiracy theorists are at it again, this time claiming that the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has a vested interest in keeping oil prices relatively low as a way to thwart money leaving oil and going towards new alternative fuels.

According to Fox News, part of the reasoning behind OPEC’s decision to allow crude oil prices to fall to $60 per barrel before discussing production cuts was to help sabotage alternative fuels, such as E85 Ethanol:

“OPEC’s cut also signaled that it would defend a price of about $60 a barrel, high enough to justify its investment in future production capacity but low enough to allow economic growth and deter a flood of alternative fuels.”

In a press release by the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), Curtis Donaldson, Charman of NEVC, stated, “OPEC feels that they can manage the price of gasoline to a point where increasing the production of E85 and providing it at more locations across the country will become less attractive.  It will be disappointing if we allow this to happen when everyone knows, now more than ever, we need more energy independence.”

Unfortunately for those looking for a good conspiracy, you’re probably going to have to look elsewhere, as oil and gasoline really isn’t threatened by ethanol.  At last count, there were over 175,000 regular gas stations in the United States, compared to only 1,000 E85 Ethanol stations, and the only place where Ethanol is a mainstream fuel is in Brazil.

It appears the main reason for OPEC allowing gas and oil prices to fall so far is because they realized there was a lot of fluff in the price and, more importantly, it realized there could very likely be severe world wide economic consequences if oil continued to push $80 per barrel.

In a world wide recession, oil consumption drastically goes down and OPEC would ultimately lose money.

So, while limiting the growth of alternative fuels MAY have played into OPEC’s decision, it certainly didn’t play a very large role.

Adapter Allows Any Vehicle to Run on Ethanol

It now appears there may be a new reason E85 Ethanol fuel may actually be able to catch on in the United States, as a Brazilian company is about to begin selling an adapter that would allow gas burning vehicles to run exclusively on E85 Ethanol fuel.

ABCesso Technology’s product is called the AutoFFV and it will work with your car’s existing sensors to allow the engine to run properly on the ethanol/gasoline mixture (E85 is 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline). 

Apparently, this product will also work in such a way that your vehicle won’t lose any performance.  This comes as a bit of a shock because one of the main knocks against ethanol is it produces less energy than gasoline – meaning you need to burn more of it to get the same effect. 

Thankfully, it appears that this company isn’t a fly-by-night operation, as, according to Autopia, ABCesso has taken considerable time and energy to create adaptors for a wide range of vehicles (Ford, GM, Honda, Volvo, etc.).

It appears the only real down side is installing this device, or any device like it, will more than likely void your manufacturer’s warranty.  Well, that and it’ll probably cost between $500 and $900 to purchase and install.

With the recent news that America now has 1,000 fully functional E85 Ethanol fuel stations, a device like this could really help bring the alternative fuel into the mainstream.

Solar and Wind Powered Car?

When it comes to creating alternative energy vehicles, it looks like some people are getting pretty creative.

For example, take the Venturi Eclectic, a car that is driven by an electric motor that is powered by the sun and the wind.  If for some reason it’s a particularly cloudy day and there’s no wind, the car’s battery can still be charged by plugging it in.

But, assuming you live in a relatively sunny area, the Eclectic will be able to charge its electric engine thanks to energy generated by the large solar panel located on its roof. 

While this may seem a bit odd, in practice it may actually be better than what is being used in today’s hybrid vehicles.  This is because the Eclectic’s batteries are still able to be charged even while the car is not moving, while current hybrid vehicles need to be in motion in order to charge their batteries.

Keep in mind, I’m essentially comparing apples and oranges because the Eclectic isn’t a “hybrid car” because it doesn’t use any gas, but for the sake of this argument go ahead and suspend disbelief.

Since this car is essentially designed for urban travel, the Eclectic’s current range is only about 30 miles and its top speed is around 30 miles per hour.

While the idea behind the Venturi Eclectic is pretty neat, it seems like it will be nothing more than a scientific marvel and won’t become a mainstream vehicle.

Big Oil Not a Big Fan of E85 Ethanol?

Much in the same way Big Oil was never a fan of the electric car or cars fueled by water, it appears they aren’t going to be too supportive of the latest alternative energy source, E85 Ethanol.

Red Cavaney, President of the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas lobby association, believes down the road E85 Ethanol may prove to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

In a press release from the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), Cavaney was quoted as saying:

“A national emphasis on increasing ethanol volumes through E85 can prove unnecessarily expensive and risky.  If we are to encourage more long-term use of ethanol, we need to avoid surprising consumers with unanticipated problems.”

Also according to the press release, Cavaney later went on to call E85 Ethanol fuel “costly and ineffective.”

The most ironic thing about Cavaney’s statement: he was speaking at the Advancing Renewable Energy: An American Rural Renaissance conference, which was hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

One would think since he was speaking at a conference directed towards both those want a renewable fuel source and those who are going to grow said renewable fuel source, maybe Cavaney would have been a little more upbeat regarding E85’s prospects.

Considering there are already 1,000 E85 Ethanol fuel stations around the country, it’s doubtful E85 Ethanol is going to go the way of the electric car and fall into obscurity, Cavaney’s remarks definitely show that this alternative fuel source has a long way to go before it is considered mainstream.

And it appears Big Oil wouldn’t mind if it never got there.

Number of E85 Stations in the U.S. Reaches 1,000

According to a press release from the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), there are currently 1,000 public and private ethanol fueling stations located across the United States.  The 1,000th ethanol station opened in Bemidji, Minnesota.

According to the press release, the number of ethanol only fueling stations has more than doubled in the past 12 months, going from 438 to 1,000.  For you statistics lovers out there, that’s an increase 128%.

With the dramatic rise in gas prices, and realization that America must become less dependent on foreign oil, ethanol fuel became a very hot topic this summer.  Because ethanol is derived from plants (usually corn or sugarcane) it is a renewable fuel resource, which is the primary reason it was able to become such a favorable alternative to gasoline, which is a non-renewable resource.

Unfortunately, there are several knocks against ethanol which may hurt its assimilation to the mainstream.  The primary concern is the energy derived from burning ethanol produces is roughly 1/3 less than the energy produced by burning gasoline.  Of course, this means most vehicles that run on ethanol only will achieve roughly 2/3rds the gas mileage of regular gasoline vehicles.

Also, there are conflicting reports regarding whether or not ethanol is actually a cleaner burning fuel than gasoline.  It seems experts are going back and forth regarding this issue, so the environmental effects of burning ethanol may not be known for years.

And considering there are roughly 170 regular gas stations for every 1 ethanol station, so it appears it’s going to be quite some time before this whole ethanol craze catches on.

High School Student Drives 7,500 Miles on $5 of Gas and a Whole Lot of Vegetable Oil

Maybe it’s possible that at some point in the near future, you’ll be able to buy your vehicle’s fuel right next to the cake mix in your local supermarket.

High school senior Bill Bridgers has traveled 7,500 miles in his diesel truck using only $5 in gas and used vegetable oil.  Taking technology he has found on the internet, Bridgers has retrofitted his truck to be able to run almost exclusively on used vegetable oil.

As a side note, I think it’s nuts that this guy was willing to risk screwing up his truck for the sake of finding a cheaper fuel.  More power to him, but I don’t think I’d have the onions to do that to my own car.

According to CBS News, Bridgers “has a huge filter to get the mandarin chicken and other food particles and impurities out of the oil, which is then heated to 180 degrees, and pumped into the truck’s engine.”  Gasoline is used only when the car is being started and when it’s being turned off – other than that, it’s powered strictly by veggie oil. 

The great thing about this is it appears that news like this will help to speed up the push for America, and the world for that matter, to find cheap, clean and renewable alternative fuel sources.

The sooner these reliable alternative fuels are readily available to the world, the better.

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