Want a Better Way to Power Cars? It's a Breeze

Wind energy is a better option to power our cars than natural gas.

| Sept. 2, 2008

Wind Energy Electric Car

One of the attractions of pairing wind energy and plug-in hybrid cars is that it would not require new infrastructure. Indeed, a study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory points out that the existing grid, using its off-peak capacity to recharge cars, could provide electricity for more than 70 percent of the U.S. fleet if all cars were plug-in hybrids.

Photo By Fotolia/Petair

Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is half right. We do need to harness this country's wind resources for a homegrown source of electricity, as he has been urging this summer in expensive television ads. And we do need to reduce the $700 billion we may soon be paying annually for imported oil. But part two of Pickens's plan — to move natural gas out of electricity production and use it to fuel cars instead — just doesn't make sense.

Why not use the wind-generated electricity to power cars directly? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits climate-changing gases when burned. Let's cut the natural-gas middleman.

Plug-in hybrid cars are here, nearly ready to market. We just need to put wind in the driver's seat. Several major automakers, including GM, Ford, Toyota and Nissan, are working on plug-in hybrids. Both Toyota and GM are committed to marketing plug-in hybrids in 2010. Toyota might even try to deliver a plug-in version of its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, the bestseller which outnumbers all other hybrids combined in sales, next year.

Some Prius owners aren't even waiting for Toyota. They've converted their hybrids to plug-in hybrids by adding a second storage battery, which increases the distance you can drive between recharges, and an extension cord that you can plug into any wall socket to recharge the batteries from the electrical grid. This lets them push the car's already exceptional gas mileage (about 46 miles per gallon) to more than 100 mpg.

GM is very much in the game with its Chevrolet Volt. This plug-in car is essentially an electric car with an auxiliary gasoline engine that generates electricity to recharge the batteries when needed. It boasts an all-electric range of 40 miles, more than adequate for most daily driving. GM reports that under typical driving conditions, the Volt should average 151 mpg.

This car technology is developing alongside wind turbine technology, setting the stage for an vehicles powered largely by cheap wind energy. The U.S. Energy Department notes that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone have enough wind energy potential to easily satisfy the electricity needs of the entire nation. To actually put wind power on the road, of course, we would have to tap the wind resources in nearly all the states, plus off-shore wind resources, which the DOE says can meet 70 percent of national electricity needs.

stacey delagarza
9/26/2008 10:57:04 PM

Why can we not incorporate the windmill mechanism into the car itself somehow? That would allow the wind produced while driving the car to actually continually recharge the batteries, thus eliminating the necessity to plug in somewhere. And for that matter, why not put the new flexible type solar panels right onto the roof of the car as well? I'm not an engineer, but seems doable to me.

jude thaddeus guardi
9/21/2008 2:52:32 PM

Think of the Cottage Indutry of suppling charges for vehichles in rural areas. a couple of small windmills, bank of batteries and power inverters. maybe solar panels as well. a big driveway a couple of cords and a meter to show howmany Kwh are being paid for! Also in suburban areas! if not windmills, then solar on the roofs. if not supply the world, then just yourself! if each owner of a hybrid chargeable car had the means to 'fuel' it themselves, the investment might make sense to more and more peaple.

richard mcbane
9/19/2008 2:12:07 PM

(previous posting continued) We are such a large country with such a dispersed population that it will take decades to create the mass transportation infrastructure necessary to significantly reduce the demand for personal transportation vehicles. That's just the ground truth, and any realistic transportationi planning for the foreseeable future must accommodate these facts. Humans can adapt to almost anything if the transitiion is gradual enough. That timeline must, of course, be balanced against the very real concerns of global climate change. But let's face facts, folks; if China, India and the Pacific Rim nations don't choose to cooperate, there is NOTHING that we can do unilaterally to forestall catastrophic climate change! All the US can do is clean up its own household (lead by example... for a change), develop clean technologies to sell to the rest of the world and HOPE they choose to play along.

richard mcbane
9/19/2008 2:06:17 PM

Natural gas is actually a quite attractive bridging technology from the status quo to fuel cell and recharagable electrics vehicles. Natural gas is typically a mixture of methane and ethane with trace amounts of propane, and it burns quite cleanly releasing approximately one carbon atom into the atmosphere for every four hydrogen atoms oxidized into water... a VAST inprovement over gasoline or diesel. Natural gas also has a naturally high "octane equivalency"/resistance to pre-mature ignition ("knocking") which allows dedicated "Compressed Natural Gas" (CNG) vehicles to be built using a much higher compression ratio. Higher compression ratios produce higher thermodynamic efficiency [better conversion of fuel BTU's to motive power]. A dedicated CNG/Plug-in Hybrid would provide excellent fuel economy and extremely low emissions. Methane can also be a completely renewable resource since it is quite easy to produce the gas by the anaerobic digestion of biomass. Therefore, using Compressed Bio-methane in such a hybrid would produce zero net carbon emissions. The success of Toyota's hybrid drivetrain is an object lesson in the practicality of pursuing an incremental transition away from fossil hydrocarbon fuels. The economics cannot be ignored and consumer acceptance is the key a graceful transition to future transportation technologies. I can "blue sky" with the best of them, but I'd rather see five million Priuses on the road today than wait another ten years Toyota, Honda, Hundai, Volkswagen and whatever is left of Ford and GM to finally offer "the perfect car". I know there are many who will shout "Public Transportation!" and that will certainly be part of the mix, but there are tens of millions of rural, ex-urban and suburban families that MUST have personal transportation. We are such a large country with such a dispersed population that it will take decades to create th

bob forbes_1
9/19/2008 1:05:25 PM

Did I read correctly? We would still be relying on imported oil to run the hybrids? We import vastly more than one sixth of our oil. I don't think that is a very environment-friendly alternative. Improved all-electric vehicles are on the horizon of development. The switch to natural gas makes sense as a bridge between all oil and all electric. It burns cleaner, we have a big supply, and it is already transported all over the nation by pipeline.

clint marchbanks_1
9/19/2008 8:40:13 AM

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is promoting the use of plug in electric transportation, not natural gass or hybred cars. He has plans to add plug in sites in the State of Oregon. This is a very smart move.

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