California Provides Outlet for Plug-in Hybrids

The race for the next clean automobile has been heating up these last few months. Different technologies are still jockeying for position. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports plug-in hybrid cars have gotten a new boost... particularly from Californians.

Molly Peterson: A couple of weeks ago, Southern California Edison president John Bryson stood proudly before a gaggle of reporters, waving what he said may be the next big car accessory: a thick orange extension cord.

John Bryson: The future needs to be as simple as this plug. Someday we believe millions of Americans will fill up their vehicles at the plug instead of the pump saving money and protecting the environment.

Peterson: Bryson announced a plan with Ford to develop 20 hybrid electric cars that'll charge up in standard 120 volt outlets. The utility's recruiting Southland consumers as test pilots.

Then last week a new study came out, sponsored by environmental and electric nonprofits. The result: even with a mix of power sources, and even if only 20 percent of Americans drove plug-in hybrids, greenhouse gas emissions would drop by at least 163 million tons a year. These developments were music to the ears of...

James Woolsey: ...the tree-huggers, the do-gooders, the sod-busters, the cheap hawks, and the evangelicals...

Peterson: ...as former CIA Chief James Woolsey called his fellow plug-in supporters last year. Many of them are Californians who've been lobbying carmakers and regulators to rush plug-ins to consumers, often by driving converted plug-ins themselves. Redwood City resident Felix Kramer has put 30,000 miles on his Prius so far.

Kramer (opening his trunk): Under that deck in a regular Prius there's a big empty area, and it's filled with a big plastic tray. And what we've done is we've filled that area with batteries.

Peterson: Kramer heads an advocacy group called CalCars.org, and so he got a Southern California company to take out the standard issue self-charging battery in his Prius and install a bunch of lithium ion ones – the same kind computers use.

Kramer: Conceptually, people have been tinkering with cars in California especially for a long time, and we think that what we're doing is green tuning.

Peterson: That tuning can double the car's cost. Toyota says it violates the warranty. And Kramer said the battery technology is evolving: nickel-metal-hydride doesn't last long, lithium ion in large quantities needs a cooling system, and conversion battery packs can poke out into the crumple zone behind a car's bumper.

On the plus side: Charging a seven kilowatt battery pack overnight can cost $.50 in L.A., and can yield more than 100 miles per gallon. Miguel Pulido, the mayor of Santa Ana, loves that about his plug-in; that and the usual hybrid amenities.

Miguel Pulido: See how silent it is? Nobody knows when I'm leaving 'cause I just float away.

Peterson: Pulido, who studied mechanical engineering, also sits on the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Regional air boards like his can't regulate auto emissions, he said, but severe air pollution makes them part of the debate.

Pulido: We at the air district are very frustrated because we think we have solutions, certainly things that ought to be tried, that ought to be supported, that ought to be attempted, so even if we're wrong, we can address that learning curve and try to move things forward.

Peterson: South Coast has been demonstrating plug-ins and electric cars for years. Pulido said that shows the state air board what's possible. The state air board overhauled its Zero Emission Vehicle program four years ago under fire from the auto industry. Now, as technology has evolved, the state agency will review its regulations again. The Zero Emission program's manager, Tony Andreoni, said caution is the watchword.

Tony Andreoni: In our workings we try to really stay more neutral and say, "The technologies are going to be there, they're going to be used; let's see when they can actually take advantage of really reducing the emissions."

Peterson: The air board will take on regulations under a hotter public glare than during the 1970s, when California got a waiver from federal law to install smog-cutting catalytic converters in cars first. Jack Rosebro of the Green Car Congress said the buzz around plug-ins makes this state's consumers a strong market force.

Jack Rosebro: When catalytic converters were proposed, we're talking about one small component. And if I remember right, car companies went to Congress and said, we will go out of business if this is put in. Now we're talking about a much bigger change. So we have to have much bigger pressures.

Peterson: Automakers exert pressure of their own. Like lobbying the Energy Department to kick in for battery research and development. The federal government's still working out how much of that to do. General Motors and Toyota do say they'll race to plug in to the market. But most other manufacturers – even the ones trying to develop the cars, like Ford – are still holding out on commitment. Ford Motor's Sue Cischke:

Sue Cischke: There isn't any one answer, and so we're betting on all these technologies with the idea that whatever we can drive down and make affordable to the consumer, that will win.

Peterson: The odds of the bet keep changing. Just this week, Toyota announced plans to test manufactured plug-in hybrids on the road in Japan and start leasing them there soon.