Jim Woolsey on Hybrid Cars

Energy and security expert Jim Woolsey on hybrid technology.
  • Transcript


Jim Woolsey: We lost about seven years by the Bush administration dropping the Partnership for New Generation Vehicles that was coming along at the end of the Clinton administration – much of it under Vice President Gore’s leadership actually – and moving to hydrogen passenger vehicles. Hydrogen has its uses as a chemical and chemical plants and the like. It might even someday be a reasonable fuel for putting in fuel cells in vehicles for something that is centrally fueled, like say a fleet of school busses. But to have a hydrogen distribution system at neighborhood filling stations all over the country with reforming hydrogen, putting natural gas into each filling station, reformers, storing explosive hydrogen, pumping on and on, I had approximately said that I thought that was going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And I was talking with a former Secretary of Energy who’s a big fan of hydrogen not long ago, and he said, “Ah no Jim. Not hundreds of billions. Easily way over a trillion.” You know a trillion here, a trillion there. Before you know it, it adds up. Whereas the only infrastructure you need to drive a plug-in hybrid is an extension cord. Period. Whether it’s new solar companies, thin film solar, nano solar, solar coming off the . . . collectors coming off the production line at a square meter a second, new types of wind … that can be used on individual buildings and houses, not necessary propeller like spinning … with other designs, vertical designs. Battery improvements making quite plausible 40 mile driving as a plug-in on overnight electricity before you need any gasoline. If you can do that –and General Motors says that’s what they’re going to be producing in 2010 . . . that’s in model year . . . that’s just two years and a bit from now – If you can do that, you will see well over half the cars in this country that are plug-ins driving effectively on no gasoline, no liquid fuel. Because the average car goes just a little over 30 miles a day. And if you have a 40 mile battery, ball park, you’re going to be getting 100 to 120 miles per gallon of gasoline. Now if you replace that gasoline with 85 percent ethanol, and let’s say it’s cellulosic ethanol – so we’re not gonna add more and more to the corn crunch and so forth – then you’re getting somewhere up in the rage of 500 miles per gallon of gasoline, and you don’t have to preach at people about not driving SUVs. If they have an SUV that’s a plug-in hybrid, and when it uses liquid fuels it’s running on E85, maybe they’re only getting 150 to 200 miles of gasoline; but for a Chevy Suburban, how bad is that? You know sometimes people need big cars. They ought to be able to have them if they need them. The problem is not cars; it’s the fuel. And people both from the national security prospective and from the global warming perspective, we’re zeroing in more and more on oil as a big part of the problem. I think it’s promising. It’s not something you can say is here within the next five years, but you will within five years see plug-in hybrids on production lines. You’ll see increases in production of alternative liquid fuels. You’ll see most cars coming off the production line being flexible fuel vehicles so they can use ethanol, methanol, renewable butanol, etc. I think there’s some simple things that government mandates are good for. Flexible fuel vehicles is one. The change you need is simply a little bit of different type of material in the fuel line and some valves, and a slight software reprogramming. It cost less than $100 a car on the production line. It’s much less of a big deal than seat belts. Brazil a few years ago – I think around 2002 or ’03 – just ordered new vehicles shipped to them, produced domestically, to be flexible fuel vehicles so it could use either ethanol or gasoline in any mixture. In two years they went form 5 percent to 75 percent of the new cars being flexible fuels vehicles. So something that simple I don’t see any reason not to mandate. What is a really bad idea is for the government to mandate a solution to the fuel issue. It’s tried it twice in the last 30 years, and it’s massively botched it both times. One is it tried to come up with . . . In the Carter administration they tried to come up with a synthetic fuel operation, the Synfuels Corporation. It was hugely expensive. It wouldn’t have been affordable unless oil had stayed way up, at close to about $70 to $100 dollars a barrel anyway. So in 1985, the Saudis dropped the bottom out of the oil market I think probably in part to cause trouble for the Soviets, which was good because it was the beginning of the end of Soviet economy; but one of the other problems they created was they bankrupted the Synfuels Corporation which was understandable. Then we’d been through all this nonsense about the hydrogen family car for much of the last seven years in the Bush administration. The government does not have a good record of picking solutions. It ought to stay out of the business of picking solutions. What it ought to do is enable competition. Flexible fuel vehicles enable competition between other types of liquid fuel. Battery improvements enable competition between electricity and liquid fuels. As you can tell, I genuinely think plug-ins are going to have a huge impact. Once people realize that they can not only go into a showroom and buy a reasonably priced car, that they can plug-in to their garage socket, drive for much of the day on effectively a penny a mile electricity – because off peak, overnight power is about a nickel a kilowatt a hours in the country; five-kilowatt charge. Say it’s something between one and two cents a mile. Nevertheless gasoline now is 10, 12, 14 cents a mile. So you’re driving at something close to 1/10 the cost that you’re usually driving. That makes a big difference in some people’s budgets. And the other thing is that there’s a concept called V2G, or “vehicle to grid”, in which after you’ve charged your plug-in hybrid . . . Let’s say you get it charged by midnight, you have a timer on it, you can make it available to the utility from midnight to 6:00 a.m. when let’s say you leave for work, for stabilization of the grid, and for what you call spinning reserves – that is power outages. Those two together are only about five percent of what utilities need to buy, about 12 billion dollars a year worth of fossil fuels. Mainly natural gas, because natural gas tends to be what’s turned on and off quickly since it’s amenable to that. Well that amount of money, if it’s divided up fairly between the utilities and the consumers …There’s a professor at the University of Delaware, … who is writing articles about this and saying, you know, do you realize that can be something in the range of $2,000 a year for the owner of a plug-in hybrid? Now let’s think about this a minute. Not only am I driving at a tenth of the cost, but somebody’s paying me close to $200 a month? Heck, that’s a major share of my car payment. Just to leave car plugged in overnight? Hey, where’s that dealership? (Laughter) So I think once … And different utilities are interested in this to different degrees. But in California, if you talk to PG&E for example, they are really enthusiastic about this concept. So there could be, I think, substantial interest in a lot of people in moving toward plug-in hybrids once they’re available. There’s no doubt Toyota has led the way with the Prius. But General Motors did a very important thing back in January when they announced the production of the Volt, their plug-in hybrid. And then a few weeks ago on National Public Radio, Bob Lutts, a very senior … he’s vice chairman of the board and a man very much identified with large cars and fast cars … he announced they’re going to be in production of plug-in hybrids in 2010. And you’d have thought from what he was saying about oil that he was president of the Sierra Club. It was just, from my point of view, great. What’s interesting is that Toyota got it early – and I think GM has gotten it now – which is that for Americans, they don’t and they shouldn’t have any particular problem with the cars. I mean look, I had three little boys at a stage in my life where I was driving eight and nine kids around to soccer practice and Boy Scouts and so forth. I needed my Chevy Suburban. People ought to be able to have the cars they want. The problem is not the car; it’s the fuel. And so as long as what you’re doing is trying to persuade Detroit to increase the café standards a mile, or two, or three, or four, or five or whatever per gallon, what they’re trying to do is ring more mileage by redesigning the car sometimes in relatively cheap, sometimes a little more expensive ways, to ring that out. But if you say . . . And they lobby against it, and they probably could have been ordered to do it much faster than they’ve done it; but from their point of view consumers want big, fast cars. So although we’ve had a huge amount of improvement in technology and vehicles in the last 20 years, virtually all of it has gone into speed and horsepower, not into fuel efficiency.

Recorded on: 7/2/2007