Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Stabilizing Climate: Hybrid Cars and Wind Power

With the price of oil over $60 a barrel at this writing in September 2005, with political instability in the Middle East on the rise, with little slack in the world oil economy, and with temperatures rising, the world needs a new energy economy. Fortunately, the foundation for a new transportation energy economy has been laid with two new technologies—the gas-electric hybrid engines pioneered by Toyota and advanced-design wind turbines. 29

These technologies deployed together can dramatically reduce world oil use. As noted earlier, the United States could easily cut its gasoline use in half by converting the U.S. automobile fleet to hybrid cars as efficient as the Toyota Prius. No change in the number of vehicles, no change in miles driven—just doing it with the most efficient propulsion technology on the market. 30

In fact, there are now several gas-electric hybrid car models on the market in addition to the Prius, including the Honda Insight and a hybrid version of the Honda Civic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Prius—a midsize car on the cutting-edge of automotive technology—gets an astounding 55 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving compared with 22 miles per gallon for the average new passenger vehicle. No wonder there are lists of eager buyers willing to wait several months for delivery. 31

Recently, Ford released a hybrid model of its Escape SUV, and Honda released a hybrid version of its popular Accord sedan. General Motors will offer hybrid versions of several of its cars beginning with the Saturn VUE in 2006, followed by the Chevy Tahoe and Chevy Malibu. 32

Earlier in this chapter we outlined how to cut U.S. gasoline use in half by shifting to gas-electric hybrid vehicles over the next decade. As we shift to these cars, the stage is set for the second step to reduce gasoline use, namely the use of wind-generated electricity to power automobiles. If we add to the gas-electric hybrid a second battery to increase its electricity storage and a plug-in capacity so the batteries can also be recharged from the grid, motorists could then do their commuting, grocery shopping, and other short-distance travel largely with electricity, saving gasoline for the occasional long trip. Even more exciting, recharging batteries with off-peak wind-generated electricity would cost the equivalent of gasoline at 50¢ per gallon. This modification of hybrids could reduce remaining gasoline use by perhaps another 40 percent (or 20 percent of the original level of use), for a total reduction of gasoline use of 70 percent. 33

These are not the only technologies that can dramatically cut gasoline use. Amory Lovins, a highly regarded pioneer in devising ways of reducing energy use, observes that most efforts to reduce automotive fuel efficiency focus on designing more-efficient engines, largely overlooking the potential of fuel savings from reducing vehicle weight. He notes that substituting advanced polymer composites for steel in constructing the body of automobiles can “roughly double the efficiency of a normal-weight hybrid without materially raising its total manufacturing cost.” If we build gas-electric hybrids using the new advanced polymer composites, then we can cut the remaining 30 percent of fuel use by another half, for a total reduction of 85 percent. 34

Unlike the widely discussed fuel cell/hydrogen transportation model, the gas-electric hybrid/wind model does not require a costly new infrastructure, since the network of gasoline service stations and the electricity grid are already in place. To fully exploit this technology, the United States would need to integrate its weak regional grids into a strong national one, which it needs to do anyway to reduce the risk of blackouts. This, combined with the building of thousands of wind farms across the country, would allow the nation’s fleet of automobiles to run largely on wind energy. 35

One of the few weaknesses of wind energy—its irregularity—is largely offset with the use of plug-in gas-electric hybrids, since the vehicle batteries become a storage system for wind energy. Beyond this, there is always the tank of gasoline as a backup.

The combination of gas-electric hybrids with a second storage battery and a plug-in capacity, the development of wind resources, and the use of advanced polymer composites to reduce vehicle weight has been discussed in a U.S. context but it is a model that can be used throughout the world. It is particularly appropriate for countries that are richly endowed with wind energy, such as China, Russia, Australia, Argentina, and many of those in Europe. 36

Moving to the highly efficient plug-in gas-electric hybrids, combined with the construction of thousands of wind farms across the country to feed electricity into a strong, integrated national grid, could cut U.S. gasoline use by 85 percent. It would also rejuvenate farm and ranch communities and shrink the U.S. balance-of-trade deficit. Even more important, it could cut automobile carbon emissions by some 85 percent, making the United States a model for other countries.


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