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The Future of Chevrolet Performance May Be A Plug-In Hybrid

Chevy Volt
Posted April 3 2008 04:44 PM by Jim Campisano 
Filed under: Super Chevy Comments, Car Engine, Other Chevy Engines

That sounds pretty stupid, right? No, this  blog isn't about building a high-output (high voltage?) version of this 2007 Chevy concept car. I'm all about burning gasoline and making horsepower. But what the Chevrolet Volt could do (if it actually comes out in 2010 as planned) is help General Motors reach the government's new 35 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy rating without the performance cars we love going away.

No one wants to re-live the dreaded horsepower-free days of 1973-1981. The Malibu hybrid and the Tahoe hybrid are interesting vehicles, but they are way short of 35 mpg territory. We could all start driving Aveos, but that's not going to happen is it. Without a drastic improvement, the ZR1s, ZO6s, and even the base Corvettes will see their power sliced by at least half. Goodness knows what'll happen to the 2010 Camaro.

But if the Volt, a proposed plug-in hybrid makes good on the 110 mpg Chevy says it can get, well, that'll really bring up the corporate fuel economy average. It'll certainly offset of lot of 15 mpg Suburbans and the like. And if it works as planned, the Volt may be the game changer GM needs to bring those who have been buying Japanese for the last 20 years back into the fold. As scary as it sounds, it may be the most important new GM vehicle since the '55 Chevy.

But I got thinking (I know, always a dangerous proposition): What happens to my electric bill when I plug this car in overnight at my house every day? For an answer, I went to Robert D. Peterson, GM manager Chevy Volt and E-flex communications. Here are my questions and his answers.

1.        Let’s say Joe Consumer trades in his old Malibu Maxx and buys a Volt. How many times per week will he have to charge the battery and how much will his electric bill go up at the end of the month?

Let's assume that Joe Consumer averages 30 mpg with his Maxx and drives exactly 40 miles each day (which would require a full re-charge of the battery each night).  At $3.60 per gallon Joe's Maxx cost him roughly 12 cents per mile ($3.60/30 miles).  Each night, the Volt would require 8 KwH of energy to fully recharge the battery.  At 10 cents per kwH, the Volt would cost Joe about 80 cents each night to recharge, or 2 cents per mile.  (The cost of electricity ranges throughout the United States, but a conservative average (not considering off-peak rates.  8 KwH x 10 cents = 80 cents; 80 cents/by 40 miles of range = 2 cents per mile).  Under this scenario, the operating cost of the Volt for Joe would be roughly 1/6 that of his Malibu.  In aggregate, the cost of operating the Volt over one year (full recharge every night for 365 years) would be comparable to having a second water heater added to your electricity bill.

2.        What will the effect on our powerplants be when there are a few million plug-in hybrids on the road?
Utility systems (generation, transmission, and distribution) are designed to handle loads of 15-20% above-peak summer load, so there is significant availability of generating capacity during off-peak periods.  Since plug-in vehicles would charge during off-peak hours, utility systems are able to handle this load. (Increases in capacity will be driven by growth in residential usage, which adds more to peak demand than to off-peak demand.)  Attached below is a graph from Detroit Edison which shows that off-peak capacity (valley-filling) exists. Also, Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) estimates that sufficient off-peak capacity exists to fuel 43% of the light-duty fleet for an average daily drive of 33 miles.

3.        How long are you expecting the batteries to last and what happens when you have to replace them? What would be the cost for that? I know that’s pretty hypothetical given the fact that the batteries are still in development, but if you have a ballpark answer it would be great.

The batteries will have two lives before recycling - the battery will first serve in the Volt for an expected 10 years or 150,000 miles.  At the end of it's useful automotive life, it will still have energy storage capability (The battery for the Volt has 16 kwh battery, however we will limit the automotive use to 8 kwh - roughly 50 percent of it's useful storage capability - to maintain our calendar and cyclelife durability of the vehicle).  We expect these batteries to have a second life storing back-up or off-peak energy from commercial or utility operations.  At the end of the batteries automotive and commercial use, it will be recycled much like other electronic devices.  Companies have begun to recycle consumer electronics li-ion batteries, we expect these same companies to play this role at the end-of-life for these li-ion batteries as well.  

One last point.  The cost of operating (question 1) and the recyclability of the battery (question 3) hint at the complexity of cost and pricing equation.  Consumers have been trained to accept a higher-cost of operating, but a lower purchase price.  The Volt, because it is a new technology, is different.  The price of this vehicle will be higher than that of comparable gas-powered vehicles, but the operating cost will be significantly less (1/6th).  In addition, the battery may have a residual value at the end of it's automotive life.  

To be clear, we don't see these differences as a challenge, but rather as an opportunity to transform the industry.  Whatever your reader sees as the envioronmental challenge we face today- global warming, energy security or CO2 - the common factor is oil.  We see the Volt as an opportunity to transform the automobile, moving it toward vehicles powered by electricity that comes from a variety of diverse sources - some of which are renewable (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.).  

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Super Chevy
Super Chevy