I spoke at the LOHAS conference last week and got a few questions from the crowd about plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). I expressed the concern I’ve written about here on a few occasions: given that we’re swapping an oil dependency for another fossil fuel dependency PHEVs don’t seem to me like the silver bullet solution some folks make them out to be. It was pointed out to me that lots of calculations have been done showing that the carbon emissions from a PHEV, even with coal-fired power plants factored into the equation, are lower than the carbon emissions for a gasoline fueled car. Someone even passed along an excellent article walking through the math (thanks, Rick).
There’s another piece of this equation, though, that I don’t think anybody’s figured out: consumer behavior. The argument for PHEVs has always been that we have lots of extra electrons overnight and that’s when folks will plug them in…so we’re not really creating demand for new electricity or straining the grid anew; we’re just using the electricity that’s already being generated and largely going to waste.
I’ve always been worried that that’s not how consumers would do it; that consumers wouldn’t realize the rules of the game — they’re supposed to plug in at night — and they’d plug in whenever they want — including at 3:00 in the afternoon on a 100 degree July day (which is during peak demand time, when the grid is strained to the max trying to meet all the demand).
Joe Nocerra, a writer for The New York Times, summarized the concern way better than I ever have, and shed some light on the reality that, as humans, we’re motivated by seemingly illogical desires. Joe test drove a Chevy Volt for a few days and wrote about his experience in today’s Sunday Review. Here’s the passage that struck me (and remember that the Volt travels about 40 miles on a fully charged battery, then the gas engine kicks in, and there’s a big display on the dash showing your miles per gallon):
“…The next day, after the overnight charge, I didn’t use any gas. After driving around 30 miles in the morning, I recharged it for a few hours while I puttered around the house. That gave the battery 10 miles, more than enough to get me where I needed to go that evening on battery power alone. Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon — and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling.
“…I’m not what you call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself. When I began to describe for Mr. Lutz (formerly of GM) the psychological effect the Volt had on me, he chuckled, ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘it’s like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score.'”
So, Mr. Nocera plugged in whenever he wanted, fueled by the very same motivation and passion that has everyone in the sustainability world all abuzz about gamification (“see, if we turn being green and energy efficient into a game or, better, a competition, then people will want to do it!”) GM has brilliantly executed on that — they’ve turned conserving gasoline into a game and they’ve made playing it really easy: all anybody has to do is plug the puppy into a regular wall outlet. I wouldn’t have advised they do anything differently — they’ve gracefully eliminated what could have been a huge reason not to buy (having to have a special outlet and/or a mandated time of day to charge). But in the end, we may simply be swapping one problem for another.