Dealing With The Flood of PHEVs That’s Coming

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A recent article at Wired makes some pretty good points about the new U.S. emissions regulations and the likely consequences. Among them? More plug-in hybrids.

While the EV industry definitely isn’t shrinking, disinformation artists are jumping on the fact of slower than hoped for growth to make it sound that way. EVs are definitely still selling more than ever, but automakers wanted some breathing room when all of their overpriced EVs didn’t sell in 2023-4 like it was 2022. There are a variety of reasons for this, including inflation, interest rates, and political hostility towards EVs. Some states are even hitting EVs with punitive taxes that far exceed lost gas tax revenue, too.

Whatever the causes, this led to Biden’s EPA easing up on new standards that would have made automakers make half of new cars sold be electric by 2032. There are a number of ways that the emissions goals were reduced, but one big one was that the EPA will allow plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) to satisfy the goal. Instead of making half of sales battery-electric EVs (BEVs), automakers can instead make 2/3 of their sales PHEVs.

This basically makes every plug-in hybrid count for about 3/4 of an EV, so we could call this the three-fourths compromise, but I doubt that’ll catch on because it would make the people who wanted it look bad.

Wired‘s writer is probably right. Given the cheaper cost of making a PHEV (and the easy access to tax credits via that route), we can expect automakers to start releasing a lot more PHEVs in the coming years and slow down their BEV efforts. Whether you believe this is a good thing or not, you can expect industry to align itself with the incentives when it can to make an extra buck.

Is This A Bad Thing?

I used to own a Chevy Volt (with a V, not a B). Unlike the one that starts with a B, the Volt was a plug-in hybrid, with 30-50 miles of range depending on the model year. Mine had about 30-35 miles of electric range, while the last model year had over 50 miles and much faster Level 2 charging. I’ve also had the cool opportunity to review the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, another plug-in hybrid with 6.6 kW charging and an EPA-rated range of about 20 miles. I personally got almost 30 miles out of it driving it carefully around town.

If everyone with a PHEV drove them like I drove the ones I’ve had good wheel-time with, they’d burn almost no gas. With the Volt, I ran the tank down to about empty on a road trip and then didn’t leave town for a few months. Because I charged it up to full in my little garage at night, took kids to school, and then charged it to full again before they got out of school, I went months without putting gas in the tank. I’d literally only fill the thing up for road trips.

I did similar with the Wrangler 4xe when I was testing it for a week. I charged it up, did some driving, charged it more, and even went almost 100 miles one day without using any gas. Only when I took it out further from town to reach some trails did I need to burn gas (which I did a couple times). Had I owned that vehicle, I would have only burned gas on the weekends.

Again, the incentives line up with people doing this just as the incentives line up with automakers building them. If there’s a plug available in one’s garage or driveway, the included Level 1 (120v normal wall plug) charging cord is enough to fill up most PHEVs at night, so there’s no need to get a charging station installed in most cases. It would be stupid to not plug the thing in at night, because you’d lose out on one of the main cost benefits, instead paying several times more for gas than you’d have paid for electricity.

But, the world isn’t always the neat rational place we’d like it to be. Some people will hate the idea of EVs so much that they’ll shit their pants to own the libs (figuratively speaking this time). Others will feel like it’s not convenient. Some people will see the power bill go up and stop plugging it in without doing the math and figuring out that the $20 increase in electricity is smaller than paying $100+ for gas. There will also be some people who get paid by an employer for gas but don’t get compensated for charging, so they’ll opt for gas.

There are also people who just won’t be able to plug in the vehicle much. Apartments, condos, and even some houses without driveways or garages don’t give you any access to electricity at night. If you’re lucky, a landlord or HOA Soup Nazi will be willing to let you run an extension cord or something, but in most cases, they’ll call that a tripping or fire hazard and won’t give you any other way to plug in. So, when market forces encourage people to buy a PHEV, people in this situation will buy one but won’t plug the thing in.

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This Problem Can Be Solved

There are some ways to get around this problem if people and manufacturers want to.

The best thing manufacturers can do (or be encouraged to do) is put in adequate batteries. Research shows that a PHEV with at least 50 miles of range gets plugged in around 60% of the time, while PHEVs with less range get plugged in less than half of that. The few PHEVs with even more range (around 80 miles) get plugged in almost all the time. This seems to be because people don’t see the value of plugging in just to still burn gas, so making the battery big enough to make it seem worth it makes sense.

Another thing that can be done is tie tax credits for PHEVs with plugging them in. Come tax time, it shouldn’t be too hard for people who have claimed the credit to gather basic data from the vehicle about the share of electric driving vs gas driving and report that. Then, like everything else you put in on tax forms, random auditing of the data could be used to keep people honest. Penalties for not plugging in, with exceptions for people who can show they don’t have access to charging at night or took road trips, should encourage the less rational people to plug in or partially forfeit the credit they got.

Finally, there needs to be more carrots and sticks to encourage multi-family property owners, HOAs, and cities to make charging at night easier for more people. With a PHEV, expensive charging stations aren’t needed as much as just access to a 120v plug. This alone would solve a good bit of the problem with PHEV charging.

PHEV technology could do a lot of good for the world while keeping the costs down for a while until battery prices come down more. But we need to get creative to make it actually happen instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba, showing two Chevrolet Volts charging at a ChargePoint station in El Paso, Texas.

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