Plug-ins and power: promise and problems

A Wall Street Journal story today highlights the promise and potential problems with plug-in cars. More accurately, it highlights the problems and shoves most of the promise to the bottom. As automakers ready plug-in hybrids and electric cars for market, the sensational headline poses a clash of the titans: "Utilities, Plug-In Cars: Near Collision?"

As gasoline reaches $4 a gallon, the benefit to consumers of transportation energy at about $1 per gallon (equivalent) is undeniable. And if one reads down to near the end of the story, one finds the studies that show the tremendous upside in terms of carbon emission and petroleum reduction. As the article makes clear, as long as most plug-in cars charge up at night, the American electrical grid can already carry the load of more plug-in cars than are likely to be produced for a decade or more. Of course, night time charging is also more convenient; most cars are parked at night and used during the day. Still, the utilities are already exploring ways to ensure cars utilize the low-cost, excess capacity existing while consumers sleep, including incentive pricing, time of use metering, and smart meters.

And the environmental benefits reported are extraordinary. If enough plug-ins were on the roads, we could see oil consumption cut by 6.2 million barrels a day and U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions cut "by 450 million metric tons annually, equivalent to scrapping 82 million cars." Where the grid is comparatively clean, as in California, switching to electricity is a no-brainer. More surprising, the story reports, "Carbon-dioxide emissions would probably fall even if coal-fired plants made the electricity, some studies have found, because they burn coal more efficiently than automobiles burn gasoline." Of course as the electric grid becomes cleaner and more renewable thanks to state and federal mandates, the cars charging actually get cleaner, too.

[Source: Wall St. Journal]

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