NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 17, 2006

Forget hydrogen-powered cars, it's now time for plug-in hybrids. At least that is what some environmentalists, national security officials, clean-energy experts and politicians are claiming, says the Economist.

The campaign is the brainchild of Austin Energy -- a power-generating utility owned by the city of Austin, Texas -- and has already won the endorsement of dozens of cities and towns, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, and more than 100 utility companies, says the Economist.

But what is plug-in technology?

  • It is a modified version of hybrid-electric cars, such as the Toyota Prius, but instead of relying solely on energy from a petrol engine to charge them up, plug-ins can be plugged into conventional power sockets.
  • This allows a plug-in to travel 30-50 miles without petrol, rather than just a couple of miles, as with the Prius.
  • Since most American motorists travel only 20-30 miles a day, they could drive in all-electric mode most of the time.
  • Potentially, this could lift the fuel economy from the pitiful 20 miles per gallon (mpg) common in American cars to 80mpg or more; but as in a conventional hybrid, once the battery is drained, the petrol engine will kick in -- thus ensuring that the driver is never stranded.

Enthusiasts say that this will dramatically reduce oil use and curb greenhouse gas emissions; however, the main obstacle is that the longer range requires a bigger battery, and bigger batteries are heavier and more expensive, says the Economist.

Still it is an interesting idea, and if it came to pass it would radically restructure America's energy economics by shifting demand from the filling station to the power station, says the Economist.

Source: Editorial, "Plug and play," Economist, January 28, 2006.

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