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Google investing heavily in plug-in hybrid car research

By Kenneth Barbalace
[Thursday, June 21, 2007]

Google through its philanthropic arm Google.org is giving away tens of millions of dollars in grants to research and develop plug-in hybrid technologies for cars. This includes a Google test fleet of Toyota Prius and Ford Escape Hybrids which have been modified with larger battery packs and plugs so that they can be plugged into electrical outlets.

As most people drive no more than 35 miles on a typical day, a car with enlarged battery packs charged from the electric grid will be able to significantly reduce their need for gasoline by using power stored in batteries. At the same time because they have gasoline engines, these plug-in hybrids are still able to take long trips or go without recharging via electrical outlets when necessary.

According to Google:

  • the average fuel economy of cars in the United States is 19.8 mpg;
  • Google's standard Toyota Prius hybrids get 40.9 mpg; and
  • Google's modified plug-in Toyota Prius hybrids are getting 73.6 mpg.

In terms of gasoline saved, the plug-in Prius hybrid used 73% less gasoline than the average American car and almost 45% less gasoline than the standard Prius. Now, obviously, the plug-in hybrid consumes electricity from the electric grid to replace gasoline and Google reports that their cars are currently consuming 113.9 Wh/mile. Still, Google estimates that at an average of $0.08/kWh for electricity and $3.00/gallon for gasoline, someone who drives 12,000 miles per year would save $1,200 per year and eliminate 68% of their car CO2 emissions. Best of all, because most plug-in hybrids would be charging themselves at night, when electrical demands are at their lowest, the current U.S. national electrical capacity could power around 160,000,000 plug-in hybrid cars or 3/4 of the total U.S. passenger vehicle fleet without needing to add new power plants.

In a novel extension of their funding of plug-in hybrid research, Google is working with California electric utility PG&E to capitalize on the fact that plug-in hybrids can charge themselves at night when electrical demands on the grid is at its lowest. Google and PG&E are experimenting with turning plug-in hybrids' relationship with the electrical grid into a two way affair. Their idea is that if there were tens-of-thousands or millions of hybrids plugged into the grid at any one time they could act as a massive electric storage array. Just as the consumer would pay the power company for the electricity to charge the batteries of their plug-in hybrid, the power company could pay the consumer to draw some power off of the hybrid's batteries during periods of very high demand. This in turn could significantly reduce pressure on an electrical grid during periods of extreme demands.

Over the past few weeks I have written extensively about the coal industry's efforts to lobby Congress to fund tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and loan guarantees for coal-to-liquids (CTL) research and development. Their justification is that the U.S. needs the CTL technology to help reduce our dependence on foreign crude oil. By the coal industry's own estimates, however, it will cost over $200 billion and take 20 years to replace just 10% of our nation's crude oil needs with coal via CTL. On top of its high cost for marginal results, CTL will have a tremendous negative environmental impact in regards to climate change. As I reported previously, the EPA estimates that compared to normal crude oil derived diesel fuel, diesel fuel derived from coal will produce 3.7% more greenhouse gases if carbon capture and sequestration is used or 118.5% more greenhouse gases if carbon capture and sequestration is not used.

Juxtaposed against each other are two visions of our energy future. On one hand, the coal industry is busy lobbying Congress for massive grants on what will most certainly be a boondoggle and potentially an environmental disaster. On the other hand, Google is busy making partnerships and funding research that will most certainly produce real solutions to our energy and environmental crisis. Google's efforts promise to bring cost effective plug-in hybrid technologies to the consumer on a large scale that could quite literally displace 30% of the total U.S. crude oil needs and 52% U.S. oil import needs. It would also reduce total U.S. CO2 emissions by 27%. This technology could even start to have an immediate impact on our crude oil consumption.

The next time you fill up your vehicle with fuel and look at how much you just spent, ask yourself this question: whose vision of the world do you like best? Do you prefer the coal industry's vision where they get tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars to produce a product that still must be sold at today's fuel prices in order to be cost effective and does nothing to reduce the average consumer's energy expenses? Or do you prefer Google's vision of the world where your vehicle consumes up to 73% less fuel, we have a real decrease in dependence upon foreign oil and saves you over a thousand dollars a year in fuel costs?

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6 comments:

NOTICE: Comments are user generated feedback and do not represent the views and/or opinions of EnvironmentalChemistry.com.

Anonymous said...

Granted that CTL is not the correct/sensible thing to do, but in your rush to praise Google, did you ever consider how the electricity to charge up Google's plugins (on a countrywide scale) is going to be derived, is it perhaps from evil Coal, or God forbid Nuclear?

Are environmentalists ever going to allow/accept energy independence for us via any other route besides the pie-in-the-skyish solar and/or wind and generation?

Oh yeah, I forgot, some environmentalists hate wind too because wind generators kill birds.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

In regards to the questions above; as is pointed out in my article above and on Google's website the current national electrical power production capacity has the capability to handle 3/4 of the current vehicle fleet being converted to plug-in hybrid without needing to add any new power plants. The reason is that the vast majority of the hybrids would be plugged in and charged at night when electrical consumption in general is at its lowest and thus there is plenty of excess capacity.

During times of peak demand hybrids could be set to stop charging their batteries thereby reducing demand. Also as is pointed out above, Google and the power company PG&E are doing research and development on two way technologies that could allow the power grid to pull power from the hybrid's battery packs during periods of peak demands there by reducing the strain on the electrical infrastructure during events like very serious heat waves.

In regards to coal energy, CTL, and energy independence; it may be very necessary to use coal to replace our oil needs in our vehicle fleet. It would, however, be much more efficient, much less costly and produce much less greenhouse gases to simply use the coal to generate electricity via existing methods than to try and convert coal into liquids. CTL is an extremely energy intensive process and expensive process. In addition to the fact that converting coal into liquids requires so much energy, pure internal combustion engines have the disadvantage of continuing to burn energy even when stopped in traffic (e.g. traffic light, or heavy traffic). Hybrids on the other hand only consume energy when they are actually moving. This is why hybrids get such good fuel economy in city driving compared to normal cars.

min said...

While I am very encouraged by the news, I am a little bit concerned with some other expenses involved.

I know as a consumer, there are some incentives available at the moment for getting a HEV, for example low insurance or less tax (I read this from a report on Report Buyer). It says exemption and grant schemes are being developed in France, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and the UK. In the US, where President Bush called for incentives to boost sales of energy efficient vehicles, tax rebates amount for $ 3,000 - $4000 per account purchase.

But there is no certain guarantee how long those enticements will remain. Plus, some other cost might go up as well. Just like computers are getting cheap, but general software prices are exorbitant.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

I found an interesting video interview/tour of Google's solar project at: CNet News

john_van_v said...

Google is a weird mix. They, by the definition of their business have zero respect for privacy -- they have a detailed personality profile of every person who uses their search engine, or other products.

Also, the "where does the electricity come from?" question is valid -- there is no actual net savings to going purely electric, though hybrid does make sense.

The only real alternative is to have humanity use mass transit, bicycles, and walk; and to return to the centralized village culture that we see in the well developed and stable societies around the world -- which the US is not one of at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Kenneth. Nice article. It’s true that Google is one of the fastest investing heavily in plug-in hybrid car research. Some car really does consume gasoline which uses most of the electricity. The research shows that more of the gasoline is used in many countries which are affecting the cost of electricity which in other sense that will lead to more disturbing the balance in environment. At first the many large industries are using most of the electricity but we need to see that electricity should be used in proper manner and in correct way so it should not effect the environment.

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