Editor’s note: This is one of a series of posts from guest contributor Richard Feldman, regional organizer for the Washington arm of the Apollo Alliance; and executive director of the Worker Center, the economic and workforce development division of the King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Every 20 minutes outside my home in Seattle, a vehicle quietly swishes by that uses not one drop of foreign oil for fuel and emits zero greenhouse gases. What is this wondrous vehicle? It’s a King County Metro electric trolley bus, powered by electrical fuel from Seattle City Light, now the first major utility in the U.S. to achieve no “net emissions” of greenhouse gases.

Electricity for transportation? In Seattle, we take it for granted—almost to the point of not thinking about it as an alternative fuel. But electricity could play a much greater role in moving the Northwest to energy independence and reducing tailpipe pollutants. Unlike a hydrogen future, which will require massive investments in fueling infrastructure, electrical infrastructure is pervasive and in place right now.

For example, we could expand the electric bus trolley system. Or make any of the proposed bus rapid transit corridors electric. We could electrify our ports. Oregon’s Climate Trust has paid for truckstop electrification; substituting electric grid power for diesel idling. RailPower is making hybrid switcher locomotives powered off a large bank of batteries (it’s currently recharged by a small diesel, but in the future perhaps it could be plugged into the grid for recharging).

And on the passenger vehicle front, we could promote plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) until the automakers start producing them. PHEVs are like some current hybrids but with larger batteries and the ability to re-charge conveniently, so local travel of 20 to 60 miles is electric, yet the vehicle has unlimited range. PHEVs drop gasoline consumption by 60 to 80 percent relative to conventional vehicles across all classes from compacts to full-size SUVs. (See chart below, from ET Currents.)

   

  • Felix Kramer of the nonprofit CalCars describes a PHEV as "like having a second small fuel tank that you always use first. You get to fill this one at home with electricity at an equivalent cost of under $1 a gallon. You refill from an ordinary 120-volt socket, with energy that’s much cleaner, cheaper and not imported." He should know. Felix and his crew have built the world’s first PHEV Prius prototype. (And they’re coming to the Northwest this week. See bottom of post for details.)

    Furthermore, PHEVs charged at night take advantage of idle generating capacity (forty percent of the generating capacity in the U.S. sits idle or operates at reduced load overnight). In addition, wind-generated electricity tends to increase at night. Various models by EPRI (pdf), Argonne Labs and others show that PHEVs using nighttime power would result in large reductions in emissions even with the average national grid providing power (50-60 percent coal).

    Sure, batteries can be improved. But in real-world driving situations NiMH batteries used to power Toyota’s RAV 4 Electric Vehicles traveled over 100,000 miles with no appreciable degradation in battery performance or vehicle range. Improving and mass-producing PHEV batteries seems much more achievable than figuring out how to make a hydrogen fuel cell provide locomotion.

    And if a PHEV is also a flexible fuel vehicle, you can get 200-400 miles per gallon of petroleum. (A flex fuel vehicle is a standard gasoline car with a stainless steel gas tank, Teflon hoses, and a computer adjustment that allows it to run a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline as well as 100 percent gasoline. These vehicles are being manufactured now.) This is an energy-independent future that combines the development of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel with the convergence of the electrical and transportation sector. It builds off of existing infrastructure and systems combined with American (and Japanese) ingenuity to guarantee our energy security. And it is a vision that is shared by a wide spectrum of supporters, from the Commissioners of the Port of Chelan County (pdf), to neo-con James Woosley to environmentalist Lester Brown.

    Several cities, including Seattle, are looking at signing on to the City-of-Austin-led Plug-in National Campaign to demonstrate to automakers that a market exists for flexible fuel PHEVs.

    By coincidence, Felix Kramer and Ron Gremban of CalCars will be driving their 100MPG Prius+ PHEV prototype through the Northwest this week. Today, they were at a press conference hosted by the Mayor’s Office, Seattle City Light, the Apollo Alliance and the Mayor’s Green Ribbon Taskforce on Climate Protection. At 2pm today, they’re at South Seattle Community College West Seattle Campus Auto Bldg room 134. Tomorrow, they join the leading lights of the PHEV world in Wenatchee for the Advanced Vehicle Initiative Summit.