Alt Car Expo: Dr. Andy Frank on kicking the oil habit with "no sacrifice in lifestyle"

I was particularly excited to hear Dr. Andy Frank, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at UC Davis, give his presentation at the Alt Car Expo. With a title like, "Petroleum Displacement with no Sacrifice in Lifestyle," how could I not? That sounds like a pipe dream. And I don't believe in pipe dreams.

In fact, I disagree with the sentiment of the title that what we should be shooting to keep our lifestyle. The three Rs of the environmental movement do start with "reduce" after all.

Anyway. I did like Dr. Frank's talk. I don't have a recording of it, but I took notes about what Dr. Frank, often called the father of the plug-in hybrid, had to say. His main point, about not having to sacrifice our lifestyles when we run out of petroleum (or chose to eliminate it from our culture), can be summed up in his argument about the high cost of fuel(s). If we can replace expensive gas station trips with cheap electricity from the grid, and can still get around, then that, "Improves your lifestyle, because you can buy more goodies rather than pay for fuel."

Make sense? Read more after the jump.
Frank has spent decades thinking about PHEVs, so it's tempting to think of his idea for a PHEV-laden future (similar to what I heard at the EDTA conference as well as during other sessions in Santa Monica and, well, around the Internet) as the original that has found its time to bloom. Frank's assessment is that the problem with most renewable energy generators is a lack of energy storage. While there is currently no energy storage of this type in our society, PHEVs could/will provide that place. Cars charged up at night, when the cost of electricity is lower for everyone, can be used during the day to power the 4 p.m. energy spike. Frank said the average driver drives for only three hours a day, so many vehicles are sitting still for 21 hours a day. Right now, some electricity generators need to be shut off during the night because there is so little demand and no way to store the energy. Because the public has paid some of the capital costs of these generators, we all benefit with a system that utilizes them to their full potential.

The numbers on the PHEVs in Frank's scenario look good, too. A range of 60 miles on pure electricity, with intelligent, computer controlled batteries designed to run for over 150,000 miles or 15 years of life. The batteries go from 100 percent to a 20 percent state of charge (SOC). At 20 percent, the gas engine kicks in and maintains the 20 percent SOC, never charging to 100 percent. What this means for about 80 percent of the people (those who drive less than 40 miles a day) will never need to use any gasoline, except for extended trips. Combine this with 10 kWh home solar energy systems that can charge a mid-size PHEV for about 30 miles worth of driving for each hour of sunlight they get, and you're talking serious dinojuice reduction. A family with solar cells on the roof and energy storage in a PHEV would allow them to become energy independent. Sound too good to be true? Maybe, but I'll let the production models tell the story. We can criticize them when they get here. I won't criticize the idea.

Frank is willing to criticize hydrogen, though. He said that hydrogen research should not be stopped completely, but the equation for funding should be shifted to a little less for H2 and a little more for PHEVs, because the PHEV payoff will be evident sooner. This money can be invested in new infrastructure that will need to be installed. Frank said one key component would be the installation of 120-volt GFI plugs (also known as ground fault circuit interrupters, or GFCI) in homes and on the street. The first step to getting PHEVs into society is a finding company that will just up and make 100 of them, send them our for testing and prove that these cars are feasible. GM, is this your time to shine?

OK, so Frank has some good ideas. But he can't solve all our problems, especially since he doesn't advocate for us to change our lifestyles. It's not a different future he sees, just a cleaner one.

"If you have to be stuck in traffic," he said, "you'd like to be stuck in traffic with no waste of fuel."

I guess that's something.

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