The Secret Life of Plug-In Cars

Passionate and eclectic alliances are fueling hybrid passion, and,'s electric.

A plug-in power cable comes out of a Toyota Prius at the Green Car Pavilion of the Washington Auto Show at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on February 3, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Marc Geller of San Francisco has driven gasoline-free in electric cars for six years and more than 65,000 miles. A sales rep for a solar installer, he often travels hundreds of miles in a day without using a drop of oil.

Felix Kramer of Redwood City, California drives a Toyota Prius he had converted to a plug-in hybrid—one that, unlike standard hybrids, plugs into a regular 110-volt wall socket for recharging overnight. Kramer typically gets more than 100 miles per gallon in daily driving.

Both men say that driving on electricity has not inconvenienced them. It’s been easier, in fact, because they seldom or never have to stop at a gas station.

The hard part was getting the cars.

Geller and thousands of other drivers were clamoring to buy the more than 5,000 leased electric cars, trucks and SUVs that California clean-air regulators forced automakers to produce between 1996 and 2003. As told in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, once the state’s Zero Emission Vehicle Regulation in 2003 no longer mandated electric cars, the car companies reclaimed the leased cars and crushed them for scrap. Geller co-founded the nonprofit Plug In America and helped lead a grassroots protest movement that saved more than 1,000 of the vehicles, one of which he drives today.

Of the original 1,115 EV1’s produced in 1997, only 40 or so still exist. These were disabled by General Motors and given to universities and museums with the stipulation that they not be driven as electric vehicles. Photo by Ian Page-Echols.

Kramer wanted a car that used electricity, but he didn’t want to stop every 120-250 miles to recharge, as electric cars must. Plug-in hybrids go 10-60 miles on electricity but also have a gasoline tank and engine, so that they operate like conventional hybrids for long distance driving. Kramer founded the nonprofit California Cars Initiative, which generated a wildfire of demand for plug-in hybrids.

Why are they so driven to plug in their cars? And why the surge of activity around plug-in vehicles in the past year?

People concerned about climate change like the idea of moving away from gasoline-powered cars and trucks, which produce 33 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Groups like the Rainforest Action Network and Global Exchange have formed an unusual alliance with conservative organizations that see liberation from foreign oil as a necessary step in improving national security. Former CIA Director and defense hawk James Woolsey (whose own home is partly solar-powered) calls the campaign for plug-in cars an alliance of hawks, tree huggers, do-gooders, religious evangelicals, and farmers (whose biofuels could be the backup fuel to electricity in plug-in hybrids).

Many environmentalists had to overcome an initial fear that driving on electricity would be dirtier than driving on gasoline, since more than half of U.S. electricity comes from coal, a notorious polluter. That fear turned out to be unfounded. Dozens of studies have shown that all-electric vehicles are cleaner than conventional cars, hybrids, or futuristic hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles even if you count pollution from power plants as well as from tailpipes (called well-to-wheels emissions).

Driving an all-electric vehicle cuts greenhouse gas emissions up to 65 percent.

The Natural Resources Defense Council teamed up in 2007 with the Electric Power Research Institute to release the most detailed and sophisticated study of electric drive ever done. Plug-in hybrids can decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent to 46 percent between 2010 and 2050 compared with gas cars and conventional hybrids, depending on such variables as number of hybrids on the road and carbon emissions from the grid. The more it runs on electricity, the cleaner the car. In fact, driving an all-electric vehicle cuts greenhouse gas emissions up to 65 percent, according to my review of more than 40 studies on well-to-wheels emissions.

And as more clean, renewable power gets added to the electrical grid—something that has to happen to have any hope of mitigating climate change—plug-in vehicles will get even cleaner.

That’s just the start of the benefits of plugging in. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and utilities across the United States are studying plug-in cars equipped to feed some of the electricity stored in car batteries back to buildings or to the grid if needed. The most exciting application of this vehicle-to-building (V2B) or vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology is to store intermittent renewable energy like wind or solar power.

The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, making it hard for society to rely on these ubiquitous forms of renewable power. The wind tends to blow mostly at night, when few people are awake to use wind power. Nighttime also happens to be the time when plug-in cars tend to be recharged. Wind power could be stored in the batteries, either for driving or for use by other parts of society through V2B and V2G.

The Sacramento, California, Municipal Utility District estimated, for example, that plug-in cars with V2G capability in just 39 percent of local households could store enough wind power on summer nights to feed the grid 1,500 MWh of electricity—about half the demand for a peak hour of summer cooling. Wireless communication systems would leave enough charge in the car for driving. Utilities might even pay drivers up front for the power, leading Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff to dub plug-in cars “cash-back hybrids.”

Sherry Boschert offers Sierra Club convention-goers a test ride in an electric car. She was competing with automakers who had paid convention organizers $3,000 per car for the right to offer rides in their green cars. Photo by Amanda Kovattana.

Drivers, utilities, environmentalists, and national security hawks all see something to like in plug-in vehicles. Consumers might make a profit of $400-$2,500 per year by buying less gasoline and having V2G contracts, Wellinghoff estimates. Utilities are interested in V2G because it can help “level” demand for electricity, shifting some demand to nights and reducing peak strain on power plants during the day. Environmentalists like the ideas of increasing renewable power use (the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that V2G cars could more than double our access to wind power) and of reducing reliance on conventional peak-demand power plants, which tend to be the dirtiest. National security hawks cheer the move away from petroleum and the fact that every building with solar panels and every plug-in car with V2G constitutes “distributed” energy that is less vulnerable to terrorist attack than a centralized power plant.

Today, advocates like Geller and Kramer are encouraged by the growing momentum for plug-in cars like the ones they drive every day, and frustrated at the same time. New plug-ins probably won’t be available from major automakers until 2009, but a number of small companies hope to offer conversions of hybrids to plug-in hybrids starting in 2008. Meanwhile, consumers needn’t sit quietly and wait, says Geller—they can help ensure that plug-ins hit the road and avoid political detours.

The more people who call the car companies at the phone numbers listed at and say they don’t want gasoline-dependent cars, the sooner we’ll see plug-ins, he suggests. “Tell them, ‘I won’t buy another new car unless it has a plug on it. No plug? No deal,’” says Geller. “Then we’ll get these cars.”

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