PHEV’s: Help me understand

PHEV’s:  Help me understand

For a few years now, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV’s) have been touted as The Answer. Dependence on foreign oil? No problem – PHEV’s will solve that! Global warming? Piece of cake – PHEV’s will reduce our carbon emissions and solve that problem in a jiffy!

Except I can’t see how PHEV’s actually solve our dependence problem or our emissions problem. And there are some concerning signs that these will be marketed to consumers as The Answer and actually encourage more electricity consumption.  That means an even greater increase in demand for electricity (likely beyond the 18% increase NERC is predicting over the next ten years), which means building more power plants (some of which will likely be coal-fired), which means increasing the CO2 emissions from electricity production beyond the 30% they account for now (compared to only 16% for personal transportation).  So this seems to me like swapping our addiction to oil for an increased addiction to electricity — an addiction that will lead to even more CO2 in the atmosphere, not less. Hence the “help me understand” headline of this post.

Here’s how I understand it: The average American daily commute is roughly 40 miles round-trip, and the estimate is that a PHEV can go 70-120 miles on a single charge. Awesome. That means most of us can go to and from work without using any gasoline. And if we plug those cars in at night when we’ve got excess capacity on the grid we’re not threatening to create an electricity shortage. Further, just in case a consumer gets a wild idea and wants to plug in his PHEV at 3:00 in the afternoon on a 103 degree August day when the grid’s already straining to keep up with the AC demand, utilities will switch to Time of Use billing and make electricity really expensive during peak demand times so consumers will be discouraged from such behavior.

That’s all a nice theory. Here’s the rub: consumers are motivated by convenience. In our Eco Pulse study they chose convenience well ahead of their comfort and the environment. In our forthcoming Green Living Pulse study (publishing August 21) we learned that only 31% of the population sets their thermostat to the level recommended for maximum savings – while the majority tries to balance their comfort against costs and the impact on the environment.

This tells me this is how the PHEV story will play out as well – especially since retailers intend to glom onto the PHEV Answer wave and offer consumers the convenience of charging their cars while shopping. (A McDonald’s in Cary, NC unveiled charging stations last week).

Even if charging a car at 3:00 in the afternoon on a 103 degree August day costs a lot per kWh, charging a car while eating a hamburger beats having to go to a gas station after eating the hamburger or – worse – changing plans entirely, heading home and staying put until the evening charge. Convenience wins…which is why PHEV’s seem to me like swapping one addiction for another rather than actually solving a problem.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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