Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Google's $10 million clean car challenge

You often hear renewable energy skeptics argue that solar and wind energy technologies don't contribute to lessening our dependence on fossil fuels because they are primarily used to generate electricity.

Google has figured out that one way to address that is to support the development of automobiles that run on solar and wind power. They've joined British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson in issuing a challenge to the general public to develop solutions designed to avoid the worst-case climate change scenario.

While President Bush and the galaxy of candidates vying to replace him struggle to articulate how we might lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, the folks at Google have some pretty good ideas that point in the right direction -- and they're backing them with some green of their own. (GW)

Google plugs in to hybrid car development with $10M

By James R. Healey
June 18, 2007

Internet search giant Google (GOOG) hopes to speed the development of plug-in hybrid cars by giving away millions of dollars to people and companies that have what appear to be practical ways to get plug-ins to market faster.

But the money, announced Monday afternoon at Google headquarters in Mountain Valley, Calif., totals just $1 million so far with another $10 million pledged, which might not be enough to move the needle.

Auto development is crushingly expensive, especially when it involves the kind of advanced battery and powertrain technology used in plug-in hybrids.

Though automakers are tight-lipped about what they spend, bringing a plug-in hybrid to market could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Google is not going to get into the business of building and selling hybrid electrics. Our focus is on accelerating their developing through research, testing and investment," says's Dan Reicher, who was assistant energy secretary under former President Bill Clinton. is the philanthropic arm of

General Motors is the only major automaker that has announced specific plans to market plug-in vehicles, as soon as 2010.

"We applaud them for the investment in plug-in hybrid vehicle technologies," says Brian Corbett, GM's hybrid powertrain spokesman. "Every little bit helps."

The federal government plans to spend $28 million on plug-in component research in fiscal 2008, he notes.

Plug-in hybrids have bigger-capacity batteries than regular gasoline-electric hybrids, so they can go farther using the battery-powered electric motor before they need to switch on the gasoline engine for more power or to recharge the batteries. Plug-ins, as the name implies, can be recharged by plugging them into normal household current, thus trimming even more the need for the internal-combustion engine.

"For plug-ins, which is everybody's goal right now, only lithium-ion batteries will work," because they are smaller and lighter than today's nickel metal hydride hybrid batteries, says Mary Ann Wright, CEO of Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions (JCS). "A plug-in with a 20- or 30- or 40-mile range, you're going to have your whole vehicle filled with nickel metal hydride," she says, making those impractical.

Lithium-ion battery packs have their own issues, beyond being costly. In sizes big enough for automotive uses, they generate considerable heat and require special cooling. And all cells in the battery pack have to be operating identically or fail-safe systems shut down the battery pack.

Nevertheless, "the technology is ready," and needs only a commitment from an automaker to use significant numbers of lithium-ion batteries, says Wright, who was in charge of the Escape hybrid program at Ford Motor before the JCS position.

JCS is a joint venture between U.S. component supplier Johnson Controls and French battery maker Saft. GM has contracted with JCS to develop lithium-ion for GM's Saturn Vue Greenline SUV, a plug-in that would go about 10 miles solely on battery power before the internal-combustion engine kicked in.

GM says the modest electric range is because Vue is an SUV, which weighs more than a regular vehicle and has to be able to carry heavier loads.

Other automakers are researching plug-in hybrids, and some individuals and companies are modifying hybrids into plug-in vehicles. Google says it has a small fleet of Toyota Prius and Ford Escape hybrids modified into plug-ins, and is recording 74 miles per gallon, vs. 41 mpg from its ordinary Prius hybrids.

Even though other car companies haven't announced plug-in plans, "There is a lot going on behind the scenes," Reicher asserts. "I would wager that three or four years from now we'll be looking at commercialization of these vehicles."

He acknowledges, however, that "there's no doubt there are challenges getting to large-scale commercialization of plug-in hybrids. This is quite a do-able step, but we're not there yet. I can't sit here today and tell you it's going to happen."

Google's timing is fortuitous. Congress is discussing ways to boost fuel economy. And gasoline still averages more than $3 a gallon in the U.S., high enough that Americans have been cheering efforts to cut fuel consumption.

The future, according to Google:

• Plug-in hybrids mass produced by major automakers.

• Fuel tanks filled not with gasoline but with bio-fuels, such as ethanol, for the internal-combustion engines to use when necessary.

• Solar carports, where plug-ins could recharge from power generated by the sun.

• Vehicle-to-grid links. The growing number of plug-in hybrid owners could sell the power stored in their cars' batteries to utility companies using special hookups to the utilities' power grid. Google believes utilities would be happy to buy that juice instead of paying very high prices for additional electricity during peak demand, such as 100-degree days when customers are running their home air conditioning full blast. announced six grants Monday of $100,000 to $200,000 each and totaling $1.05 million, to: advocate plug-ins, research vehicle-to-grid technology, promote federal policy that encourages plug-ins, educate people about plug-ins, promote research, design and development of plug-ins.

This summer, will publish on its website a request for proposals for another $10 million. The organization says it will "invest approximately $10 million in technologies and companies featuring plug-in hybrids, fully electric vehicles, vehicle-to-grid capabilities, batteries and other storage technologies, and the application of renewable energy and fuels to green vehicles."


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