Plug-in cars are close; let’s address obstacles

Remember how much you paid to fill your gas tank last week? See if we can interest you in this:

A car that runs on electricity and liquid fuel, like today’s Toyota Prius and other hybrids, but that can go for 20, 30, even 40 miles on electricity alone when fully charged. Depending on the distance of your commute, you could potentially get to work and back without ever using a drop of gasoline. You charge the battery simply by plugging it into a standard home outlet overnight.

Plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are all the rage these days in transportation, environmental, and even global security circles. A conference in Redmond last week, sponsored by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Cascade Center, attracted more than 300 enthusiasts. Among them were federal and local policy makers looking for ways to jump start a PHEV revolution.

You can’t help but get excited about the prospect and its implications for some of our most vexing problems. Who wouldn’t embrace putting a big dent in our use of fossil fuels in transportation? Besides the obvious environmental benefits, the geopolitical implications could be dramatic. Americans are essentially funding both sides of the war on terrorism, because oil money we send to places like Saudi Arabia funds terrorist activity. And because oil is a finite resource and world production is likely nearing its peak, cheap gasoline is probably gone forever.

Getting lots of PHEVs on the road has its challenges. Toyota and General Motors are leading the race toward mass production, but both say battery technology needs more work. Detroit would love to see the government invest more in research.

The grid needs major work, too, and major government investments. “Smart grid” technology must be incorporated to manage loads if millions of cars are going to be plugged in.

And in the Northwest, our use of hydropower presents another puzzle. It’s assumed that PHEVs would be plugged in at night, when demand is lowest. That works fine for systems that generate power with coal or nuclear plants. But hydro-electric dams typically don’t produce much power in the wee hours, when water is conserved for later use or spilled over the dam to help fish get through.

Given the enormous potential benefits of PHEVs, solving these challenges should be a high public priority. The issue deserves urgency among policy makers, energy regulators and utility officials. It should be a major point of discussion in presidential campaigns.

Such a promising solution to such vexing problems deserves no less.

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