Plug-ins: The Next Generation of Hybrids

PHEV Factsheet GHG Comparison

Yesterday, giant automaker Toyota released some very hopeful news about the availability of advanced batteries to power plug-in hybrid vehicles. At the annual North American International Automobile Show, Toyota Motor Corporation’s CEO Katsuaki Watanabe announced that beginning in 2010 the company will deliver “a significant fleet” of plug-in hybrid demonstration vehicles running on lithium batteries for use by fleet customers. He further remarked that Toyota is in the planning phase of an expansion of their current hybrid battery supplier, Panasonic EV, to include a lithium battery production line.

Plug-in hybrids are the next generation of hybrids. The key enabling technology of these vehicles is the advanced battery and Toyota’s plan to roll-out vehicles and build battery production lines is important because the company appears serious about taking the next step with their hybrid technology.

To be considered a green technology leader, automakers need plug-in hybrids in their lineup. Plug-in hybrids are a critical component of a sustainable transportation future that gets us off oil and reduces emissions. Driving a plug-in charged with renewable energy emits only as much global warming pollution as a 74 mpg car. (See more details in this NRDC factsheet.)

While Toyota and GM, which has been heavily promoting its Chevy Volt, are seeking positive press with their plug-in announcements, they are also doing some of the work necessary to meet future regulations in California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Program. A proposal to update the ZEV program will require the six largest automakers to produce thousands of plug-in hybrids annually starting in 2012.

Just getting plug-ins on the road doesn’t finish the job, however. We also need clean fuels, which means clean grid electricity for plug-ins. California is a great place for plug-in hybrids because the grid on average emits about half as much heat trapping greenhouse gases per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced than the national average. Also, the story gets better over time because California has the policies in place to keep making the grid cleaner including a cap on global warming pollution emissions, renewable portfolio standards, and power plant performance standards that block expansion of dirty coal generation.

Nationally, wide-scale adoption of plug-in hybrids can provide significant reductions in global warming pollution if the grid cleans up. NRDC collaborated with the Electric Power Research Institute on a comprehensive study that found that a vehicle fleet of predominantly plug-ins charged from a very clean grid could reduce transportation global warming pollution by more than 600 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent annually by 2050, which has the same effect of taking 110 million cars off the road.

When not running on electricity, plug-in hybrids should be fueled with biofuels. A‘flex-fuel’ plug-in hybrid could allow Americans to eventually kick the oil habit entirely and reduce emissions further. It will take time to reach this vision, however. The vehicle fleet turns over slowly (and the power sector even more slowly), so we need to start putting clean plug-ins hybrids on the road today. That brings us back to batteries.

Toyota and GM are consistent in their remarks about lithium battery prospects: producing affordable, long-lasting automotive batteries still has engineering challenges, but they don’t need to wait for new technology inventions. I’m hopeful that engineers can soon deliver batteries that will make plug-in hybrids a real possibility for all drivers, and I will be convinced when I see them in the showroom.