Lighten up

Forest Jehlik, a vehicle systems engineer at the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne Laboratory lifts the lid on six myths surrounding plug-in hybrid electric cars and trucks.

Myth #1: There are a significant number of plug-in hybrids currently for sale.

Although several major carmakers, including GM, Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, and Volvo are developing plug-in vehicles, those vehicles are a least a year away from hitting the showrooms. There are no plug-in hybrids on the road. Today's hybrids get electricity from batteries and regenerative brakes.

Myth #2: Researchers can measure fuel economy for a plug-in hybrid just as easily as they do for gas-powered cars.

Not quite. Establishing how many miles a plug-in hybrid vehicle travels on a gallon of gas is a complex task. It really depends on the driving and charging habits of the vehicle's owner. For example, if a particular plug-in hybrid gets 50 miles per charge and its owner commutes 40 miles to work and back, then drives an additional 10 miles each day before recharging the battery overnight, he would theoretically use no gas at all.

Myth #3: Plug-in hybrid vehicles are costly because automakers are gouging consumers.

The components that go into plug-in hybrid are still expensive, and so are the finished vehicles. For example, the battery for a plug-in vehicle costs nearly $10,000. Costs might come down when the technology matures and more people buy hybrids.

Myth #4: Batteries in plug-in hybrid vehicles are unreliable, unsafe, and must be replaced too often.

Most plug-in hybrids being developed rely on lithium-ion battery packs, and engineers have built advanced controls into them that will prevent fires and keep drivers safe. Lithium-ion battery packs have also been put through lifecycle tests that exercise hybrid vehicles and their battery packs for more than 150,000 miles. At the end of the testing, which is said to replicate a car's service life, the vast majority of batteries still function quite well.

Myth #5: Lithium-ion batteries are the only type of battery that will work in plug-in hybrid cars.

Although lithium-ion batteries replaced nickel-metal hydride batteries as the focus of most electric vehicle developers, engineers around the world continue to investigate different approaches to energy storage that could bring down the cost of plug-in hybrids. The last word on hybrid batteries has yet to be written.

Myth #6: America's electric grid can't handle the increased load of charging millions of electric vehicles.

The U.S. electric grid can accommodate the imminent rollout of plug-in hybrids onto the country's roads, given the pace they are likely to enter the market. But the country's grid will need to keep up with added demand, which could include millions of hybrid cars and trucks, and to ensure better, more efficient transmission, distribution, and consumption of electricity.

Smart grid might save energy but it won't lower your electric bill

One of the goals of the so-called smart grid is to let consumers monitor their electricity usage and control it. This could save energy, but it is unlikely to save consumers any money even if they use less electricity, according the San Francisco Examiner. Instead, state regulators will likely let utilities bump up rates to compensate for the reduced amount of electricity they will sell. Utilities will point to their smart-grid technology to persuade government regulators to let them raise rates. GE Energy Vice President Bog Gilligan recently admitted as much when he noted that “decreasing energy sales would cut into utility profits. Ultimately, policy will be needed to encourage and reward utilities for driving efficiency and conservation.”

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