Meeting analyzes future of plug-in hybrids

Charley Bruce

A round table discussion raised hopes of the state of Minnesota and the University joining forces to become a leader in plug-in hybrid automobile technology.

The University’s Center for Transportation Studies, the Initiative for Renewable Energy and Environment, the Humphrey Institute State and Local Policy Program and the Center for Diesel Research held a round table discussion at the Continuing Education and Conference Center on the St. Paul campus Jan. 18 about Minnesota’s stake in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV).

The University has the strength to analyze the economics of PHEVs, mechanical engineering professor David Kittelson said. This will lead to understanding what incentives businesses need to mass-produce the cars.

“Universities can do fundamental research,” Kittelson said.

The University could also research intelligent plug-in hybrid vehicles, he said, such as vehicles with GPS on board that prepare for the road ahead. These vehicles would, for example, anticipate a hill and build a sufficient battery charge for the climb.

Dr. James Eberhardt of the Department of Energy said a PHEV is similar to a gas-electric hybrid, but a PHEV can run on only electricity for about 20 to 60 miles. The PHEV’s battery is recharged through an electrical outlet.

Lynn Hinkle, co-chairwoman of the legislative task force on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, said Minnesota is open for “green business.”

Plug-in hybrids are important because they are energy efficient, contribute to better air quality and could bring economic development to Minnesota, he said.

Hinkle said the task force is moving toward recommending incentives for using green technology.

DFL state Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis said one of the best policy aspects of plug-in hybrid vehicles is that it brings together many groups of people working toward a single goal, even Republicans and Democrats.

Hornstein, who authored the bill creating the state plug-in hybrid task force, said it passed with 100 percent support.

He said he is very hopeful Minnesota can become the center of PHEV technology.

“We’re already a center for biofuels,” Hornstein said.

These vehicles could potentially run on Minnesota biofuels and be built at the soon-to-close St. Paul Ford plant, he said.

Dan Norrick, manager of advanced development at Cummins Power Generation, said businesspeople need to see a payback on their investment to get hybrid technology into commercial fleets.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles offer a chance to reduce dependence on petroleum, he said.

“People want economy and are willing to pay for it,” Norrick said.

Students on hybrids

Anna Cox, a first-year medical student, said hybrid vehicles will save gas, damage the environment less and last longer than the average automobile.

“I think if we could get them here and get car companies to support (hybrids), that would be great,” she said.

Cox said she knows hybrids cost more up front, but save people money over the long run.

Jeremy Seeman, a first-year chemical engineering student, said hybrids in Minnesota would promote the auto industry and energy-efficient technology.

“It would open up a lot of jobs,” he said.

He said he was looking at possibly buying a Ford or Toyota hybrid.

Challenges to overcome with technology

Eberhardt said PHEVs have a lot of positive potential for the United States, but aren’t a feasible technology yet.

“Going back to electrical power (for vehicles) is going to be difficult,” he said.

PHEVs are too expensive to be attractive to consumers, Eberhardt said.

An electric vehicle could cost as much as $120,000, he said.

Eberhardt, the chief scientist on the FreedomCAR and Vehicle Technologies Program for the DOE, said the current battery life is eight to 10 years, but the vehicles themselves last much longer.

“You expect the engine to last the life of the car,” he said.

With the short range of the batteries, Eberhardt said, owners will have to recharge PHEVs repeatedly.

“You’ll be living in the fuel station,” he said.

Eberhardt said plug-in hybrids wwould stress electricity production capacities to charge batteries. Producing the electricity without fossil fuels will be a challenge.

“You may have to use gas to produce electricity,” he said.

If electrically powered vehicles were developed, getting rid of the 176 million gas-powered automobiles people drive today would be a problem, Eberhardt said.

“It takes a long time to turn over a fleet (of cars),” he said.

Eberhardt said he is optimistic because General Motors Corp., which employs 300,000 Americans, will be developing a Saturn Vue PHEV.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Eberhardt said. “(But) if we’re ever going to get off fossil fuels, it will be with plug-in hybrid vehicles.”