Flawed PHEV report has legs

There has never been a shortage of stories in the press denigrating plug-in electric cars. Why? Because people naturally, logically believe electric cars are a good idea. Special interests who preferred to maintain the internal combustion status quo (read oil and auto companies) have long needed to plant seeds of doubt. Via paid consultants, close relationships with universities, a pliant press more apt to reprint a press release than analyze it, and print and television advertising, their negative message has been successfully imparted.

We’ve seen it all in the press: electric cars are more polluting, less safe, require too much water, will electrocute rescuers after a crash, will spontaneously explode, and will kill the blind. It takes a sustained effort to sow confusion about the obvious benefits of electric cars. Little would have been gained by attempting to expand the reach of gasoline to laptops or refrigerators, so we’ve long been subjected to a decades-long preemptive assault on electric cars. As electric cars seek a place in the market, expect more such stories.

This week saw the sophisticated version with the release of a National Academies of Sciences study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The press release headline blares: “PLUG-IN HYBRID VEHICLE COSTS LIKELY TO REMAIN HIGH, BENEFITS MODEST FOR DECADES.” The report highlights battery cost in 2010 leading to a $18,000 premium for some initial PHEVs, and suggests no lower cost is unlikely to be achieved with economies of scale. Dubious presumptions about PHEV usage lead the authors to minimize any potential petroleum and emissions reductions. Many reports, including presentations at CARB in September 2009, see much more positive indicators on the battery front, and the NRDC/EPRI study that led to the “more polluting” story cited above, actually points to significant emissions reductions with PHEVs. [update: Felix Kramer has published a detailed debunking, as has the Electrification Coalition.]

If you read to the end of the press release, you find out more about who actually issued the report. It was something called the “Committee on Assessment of Resource Needs for Development of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technology & Potential Impacts of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles “within the “Board on Energy & Environmental Systems” of the “Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences” of the National Academies of Science. An odd-sounding committee, really, albeit imbued with gravitas. According to the Committee Membership Information, the group contains at least three retired oil and auto company people, academics who do hydrogen research, consultants with oil company ties and one who has served on the National Hydrogen Foundation board and another the retired Vice President Hydrogen Systems for Chevron Technology Ventures, and a venture capitalist immersed in hydrogen. And, of course, a professional environmentalist, a Union of Concerned Scientist scientist, whose work has focused on fuel cells. Stacked deck?

The message from those attempting to derail the inevitable plug on vehicles is always the same – we’ve got to keep trying everything. Nothing’s ready yet. We can’t choose winners.

According to the report, a portfolio approach toward reducing U.S. dependence on oil is necessary for long-term success. This should include increasing the fuel efficiency of conventional vehicles and pursuing research, development, and demonstration into alternative strategies, including the use of biofuels, electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

CNN picked up the story questioning whether plug-ins pencil out for consumers.

Friday’s Washington Post editorializes ignorantly against government support of plug-ins, based it would seem solely upon this report.

One of the many smaller media outlets and blogs to pick up the story got the message. The author of Don’t Believe the Hype About the Plug-In Car, opined:

There’s always the hope that a genius at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or another top school will invent the gizmo that changes everything. But this isn t Hollywood and technological advances are likely to be incremental. That means no immediate miracles and oil will continue to be a vital part of the economy for the foreseeable future.

In fact it doesn’t take a miracle. It takes a clarity of purpose, a willingness to pay attention to the science, and the guts to aim high. We need a focused effort at transportation electrification to work in parallel with the move toward renewable energy.

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