Hot for hybrids

Rep. Frank Hornstein wants to accelerate hybrid car technology

It's not often that a piece of legislation offered up in the hinterlands by a politician mostly unknown outside of a handful of thawing neighborhoods presents the opportunity to rearrange the world. A bill promoting the production of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) recently submitted to the Minnesota House of Representatives could drastically reduce the amount of money you spend on gasoline, make the air you breathe cleaner and, as an extra bonus, make the United States safer and quite possibly energy-self-sufficient.

Too good to be true? No, says Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL 60B), author of the bill. He says that if Minnesota doesn't begin to act now, it might not become a leader in the design and manufacture of hybrids some are predicting will take the place of the popular hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.

Northern lights

&#8220I think the stars have aligned for Minnesota to really be a leader here,” Hornstein says. &#8220The potential is amazing.”

The PHEV being discussed in the Legislature is a car (or SUV or truck) that looks like any other vehicle, except that it's propelled by an electric motor when the car is going 35 miles per hour or under; above that speed, an internal combusting engine - the same type of gasoline-powered engine in typical cars - starts up. The PHEV can go for up to 30 miles or so on electricity. You simply plug the car in overnight to charge its batteries. If the batteries are drained by driving further than 30 miles between charges, the internal combustion engine kicks in.

Proponents of the plug-ins say that the vehicles could have their most dramatic impact in urban areas, where much of the driving is at low speeds and a lot of time is spent by drivers in vehicles idling in congested traffic.

David Morris, vice president of Minneapolis- and Washington D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says of the plug-ins, &#8220They are quiet. They are pollution-free inside of a city, which is where we have most of our air quality problems, and when you drive on electricity, you're getting over 100 miles per gallon equivalent; and when you drive on electricity, it's costing you between 25 and 50 cents a gallon equivalent.”

Hornstein's legislation is designed to encourage production of PHEV by establishing a commission to develop an incentive package for Ford's St. Paul plant.

Local politicians, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have been searching for ways to entice Ford to spend the estimated $500 million it would take to refit the plant to produce new vehicles. The Ranger pickup is currently made there, but it's rapidly diminishing in popularity, making it very possible that the carmaker will close the plant as part of the downsizing it announced in January.

Morris has spoken to various heads of divisions within Ford about refurbishing the plant to build plug-ins. So far, they've not shown any great enthusiasm for the idea, he says.

Ford executives acknowledge that they missed the boat on the current generation of hybrids because they paid too much attention to consumer surveys indicating that Americans wouldn't pay extra for hybrid technology, he says. Now those Ford executives cite consumer surveys indicating that people won't pay extra for plug-in hybrid technology, he adds with a laugh.

&#8220Someone said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Morris says.

Here and now

Hornstein is trying to break not only those carmakers out of their circular insanity, but consumers, too. He says that according to his own entirely unscientific analysis, Southwest has more hybrid cars per capita than any other place in the state. He thinks his constituents are primed to take the next leap in technology that could help clean the air, address global warming issues, reduce the use of foreign oil and make streets quieter.

Though his legislation is mostly made up of suggestions and the creation of bodies to study problems (such as how the Ford plant can be reconfigured to produce plug-in hybrids), it's a first step in the process of enabling Minnesota to make a real impact in what he and others see as the future of cars.

Another impact of his legislation, assuming that it's enacted and eventually helps facilitate the production of plug-in hybrids by carmakers, is that it would lead to a significant increase in the use of electricity. An increase in the use of electricity would mean an increase in the use of coal burned to generate electrical power here in Minnesota and most of the rest of the nation - three-quarters of Minnesota electricity is generated by coal-burning plants, says Michael Noble of Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a St. Paul-based environmental group.

&#8220Coal is the primary cause of mercury in fish, coal is responsible for about 33 percent of all global warming emissions coal is a serious environmental liability,” he says.

Despite all of those liabilities, cars running on electricity would have &#8220considerably lower” emissions than those running on gasoline, he added.

But Noble, Hornstein, Morris and other supporters of the plug-in technology want to take things a step further: they want Minnesota plug-ins to be powered by renewable, &#8220pollution-free and emissions-free” sources of electricity such as wind power and solar power.

Their vision extends even further. They want to change the liquid fuel going into the plug-in hybrids, too; by using E85 (a biofuel mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) instead of regular gas, U.S. reliance on foreign oil would be reduced even further, American farmers would get a boost and air pollution would fall off at even sharper rates.

&#8220It's a big and ambitious visionary idea, but it's not futuristic,” Noble says. &#8220It doesn't require any breakthrough technology because all of the building blocks are already here.”

He said three of the four pieces to the plug-in hybrid puzzle are already in place: hybrid cars such as the Prius, E85 is being made and used, and electricity is being generated at cost-effective rates.

&#8220The only piece that we need for this puzzle is better batteries to put in our cars,” he says. &#8220With those four pieces, we could have cars that dramatically reduce our reliance on oil.”

Battery-powered future

Professor Bruce Jones, of the Automotive and Manufacturing Engineering Technology department at Minnesota State University at Mankato, says the problem with batteries is &#8220an energy density issue. To store enough energy to move a vehicle for any given significant distance, the mass of the batteries has been extremely heavy.

&#8220To use lighter batteries and still hold the same amount of energy, it costs significantly more and now you get into a dilemma of how much is the consumer going to pay to be able to do that.”

If Hornstein's bill is enacted, Jones' department at Mankato will get $100,000 to buy two hybrid cars and convert them to plug-in hybrids capable of running on ethanol and gasoline.

The automotive engineering department will team up with one of companies offering hybrid conversions to see if they can improve the technology, perhaps cutting costs for future plug-in consumers. One such company is EDrive Systems, LLC (www.edrivesystems.com).

Though EDrive isn't yet offering their conversions commercially, their Web site says they'll be doing so at a Los Angeles installation center beginning this spring. The EDrive Web site describes their system as follows: &#8220The EDrive system replaces the existing Prius NiMH battery and Toyota battery control computer with a larger Valence Saphion lithium-ion battery and a proprietary battery monitoring and control system developed by EnergyCS. The new system allows the Prius to be charged at home using a standard 110/120V home outlet. With the larger battery, the Prius can run in electric-only ‘EV' mode at lower speeds or when less power is needed. The result is EV driving and electrically boosted gasoline driving for the first 50 to 60 miles with a gasoline efficiency of 100 to 150 mpg. After the 50-60 mile ‘boosted' range, the vehicle performs just like a standard Prius until it is plugged in again. The battery system is approximately three times larger than the Toyota NiMH battery and is installed under the rear cargo carpet.”

EDrive's conversion will cost $12,000.

Jones, Hornstein, Noble and Morris all agree that part of the problem with the cost of the batteries is simply an issue of economies of scale. Lithium ion batteries of the size needed to power a car are extremely pricey. But one maker of the conversion kits claims that if they were to get 1,000 orders, they could cut their battery costs in half.

Hornstein and company get excited by the thought of what would happen if hundreds of thousands of people - and one day, maybe millions - bought plug-ins. There are currently about 200,000 conventional hybrids on the roads today.