My current 'object of desire' is the absolutely gorgeous Fisker Karma. Built by Fisker Coachbuild, and powered by a powerplant from Quantum Technologies, the Karma is an eco-geek's dream machine. It is a plug-in-hybrid, which operates exclusively off of it's batteries, with a gasoline engine to power the electric plant in the event that the driven range exceeds 50 miles between charges. If your commute is less than 25 miles in each direction, the gasoline engine never kicks on, and you end up with an effective 100MPG. When you have returned home (or if you have an AC outlet at work), you plug it in and charge the batteries and you are ready to roll after work or the next morning.
The clever folks at Fisker Auto also have the option of a solar array on the roof of the car to keep the cabin (and batteries) cool during idle periods, thereby boosting the batteries' efficiency. Rumor has it that there is also a garage-roof-solar-panel option with the car as well, to allow it to charge using solar while parked. Of course, if you drive home from work in the evening, that doesnt give you much time to harness the sun to charge the battery unless you have some sort of fuel-cell that stored it up all day.
In my case, with two young children, it is the perfect pairing of exotic sportscar (it goes 0-60MPH in 5.8 seconds) and family sedan. Granted, the estimated retail price is somewhere north of $80,000, so it is unlikely that my smarter-and-better-half will green-light the pre-order in these harsh macro-economic times.
Never one to be deterred, I set about trying to justify the value to myself (in preparation for the harder sell to my wife), and was surprised to discover some nasty facts about electric power in the United States that caused me to think twice about a plug-in hybrid.
I'm going to lay out some data that I uncovered, and hope that some astute readers can point out the holes in my concerns, or new data, so I can justify this after-all:
In the United States, about 50% of all electricity consumed 'at the outlet' is generated by Coal plants. Other than the horrendous boron, mercury, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and other human-toxic chemicals emitted by every coal plant, coal plants are horribly inefficient converters of coal to electricity, with a peak efficiency of ~40% for the newest/greatest plants. This means that 60% of all energy generated is lost in the generation process. Not off to a good start.
The aging electric grid in the United States contributes another 30% loss of efficiency, between built in resistance and heat emissions of the transmission and distribution system, and topological congestion points that halt the flow of electricity like some sort of electron traffic jam. Think of those step-down transformers on the pole in your neighborhood, and you can see where energy is gradually and systematically sacrificed at each of those steps from the coal plant two states away and the outlet in your house.
Finally, inefficient grounding (that third plug at the bottom of your AC adapter) rounds off the efficiency equation with an additional 10% loss.
So, on average, 80% of energy generated is wasted between generation and the consumer. We wont even get into the math behind taking liquid fueled power plants (oil/electricity generation, anyone?) and then subtracting T&D loss from the electricity generated. Sadly, wind and solar installations combined dont make up enough of the generating capacity in the country to shift the needle significantly.
Now, I drive into my garage after a hard day at work in my shiny new Karma. I plug into the 110v outlet (unless I plan to have the electrician wire up a 220v for the car so it can charge faster), and it starts it's overnight electricity guzzling. I walk in to my home and try not to think of the electricity that was required to manufacture the car in the first place. Ignorance is bliss.
I don't know how much energy is required to take a gallon of gasoline from the point of extraction, through post-processing (and how efficient that is), trucked to the underground storage well and ultimately into my car's gas tank at the local gas station. I do know that the thought of a device consuming electricity from coal where >3/4 of the energy was lost in generation and delivery seems like it is shifting the emissions from one side of the wall to the other, and it's not an even trade. I have to assume that the powerplant in my wife's hybrid gas/electric sport utility, all things considered, is more than 20% efficient in converting gasoline to kinetic energy.
Now that I have nearly talked myself out of a plug-in electric vehicle, would one of the remarkably intelligent readers of this blog please point out the error in my reasoning? Pretty please? I'll give you a ride in my new car........