Plug-in cars have left the hobby stage. Approximately 600 people attended Plug-In 2008, the first edition of a conference held earlier this month in San Jose, Calif. And, 1,000 attendees paid to see the technology show floor. A pre-conference battery workshop was standing room only.
In many ways this enthusiasm is warranted: PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) hold the sole realistic short- to medium-term promise to significantly reduce vehicular petroleum consumption, say many experts in the field. PHEVs have larger battery packs than standard hybrids, but smaller ones than full electric cars, and at today's state of battery development this offers them a better cost/performance combination than full electric cars. But it's not as good as with standard hybrids.
For short- to medium-range distances, PHEVs, in fact, can function as electric cars. Sixty to 80 percent of household vehicles travel less than 20 to 60 miles in a day, a distance a plug-in hybrid will cover with battery power. And with most PHEVs, the majority of the energy for short-range travel comes from a wall plug, perhaps at a cost of less than a dollar per gallon of gasoline equivalent.
Besides reducing tailpipe emissions and gasoline consumption, plug-ins of all types can potentially help balance the electrical grid by getting drivers to charge them at night when electricity is cheaper and demand is far lower. Assuming millions can be deployed, PHEV batteries charged at night can also serve as energy storage devices for utilities and/or wind power providers without, according to some studies from the national laboratories, unduly stressing the grid.
Finally, a PHEV can act as a self-propelled generator on wheels, allowing it to swarm to emergency situations like Hurricane Katrina.
Consumers are already drawn to the idea of electric cars. This can be judged by both the excitement around cars like the all-electric Tesla Roadster but also in sales of hybrids, such as Toyota’s Prius, Ford’s Escape Hybrid (which uses Toyota licensed HEV technology) and Honda’s Civic Hybrid.
PHEVs, at their simplest, add a bigger battery to a standard hybrid and a 110- or 220-volt plug to that battery. Compare that to standard wall plugs, which operate at 110 volts, and clothes dryers that use that strange looking and oversized plugs to plug into a 220 line.