Book Review: Plug-in Hybrids
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Recharging America one car at a time

Review of: Plug-in Hybrids: The cars that will recharge America
By: Sherry Boschert
New Society Publishers, 2006, 230 pages

Review by: Jason Hayes, M.E.Des., Communications Director, American Coal Council

Originally web published: Fri, 2008-09-05 10:26.

With gas prices hovering somewhere between $3.50 and $4.50 a gallon over the past several months, strained budgets are making for strange bedfellows.

Gas, electricity, energy security, our automobiles, and the environment; in both our world and this book, they're all linked. In Plug-in Hybrids Boschert follows a few of the people who are working to address energy shortages and rising fuel prices through the early adoption of electric vehicles (EV), hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV).

The book opens with Chelsea Sexton weeping over the untimely “death” of her friend. It was through her connection with this friend that Sexton had found employment, met her husband, and now had a young son. More than that, we learn as we read that Sexton's contact with this friend had set the tone for much of her life interest. Now Sexton, an “automotive insider,” was responsible for giving the eulogy at her friend's funeral service. But this was no ordinary funeral service, and Sexton's friend wasn't flesh and blood. Her friend was her car and the movement that it represented.

Sexton had worked as part of the General Motors (GM) engineering and marketing teams that created the EV1 – GM's first foray into the electric vehicle world and their initial answer to the issue of improving automotive efficiency and decreasing emissions. It was a full, battery only, EV and managed to gain the respect of many across the nation. In the end, however, GM canceled (or at least delayed) their EV car program and demanded that the cars be returned. Thus the funeral service as Sexton and others said goodbye to their work and their friend.

Through this personal look into the lives of the people in the hybrid and EV movement, Boschert has created an effective medium to promote interest in EVs and PHEVs. Throughout the book, she takes a look at the lives and work of others in the hybrid community, including:

* Felix Kramer and his geek-powered “tech squad.” This group of technically-oriented hackers managed to create the first PHEVs by modifying early models of the Toyota Prius. They added charging ports and larger batteries and, in doing so, pushed the little car to achieve miles per gallon (mpg) ratings of 100+. Her review of Kramer's work expects that the big car companies will expand on what the tech squad achieved, allowing the manufacture of millions of PHEVs in the near future.
* Marc Geller, a political and grassroots activist who helped lead the protests Boschert claims “shamed” automakers into stopping their program to recall and crush EVs.
* R. James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA and foreign policy advisor to the Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations. (Woolsey is also currently working as an advisor to the McCain-Palin campaign.) Woolsey is rightly described in the book as someone who never fit neatly into the traditional right/left political divide. Hawkish in the foreign policy realm and liberal-leaning in economic and social issues, his work has focused on the need to reduce American demand for foreign energy supplies. As Boschert shows, he embraced the PHEV concept as an excellent means of partially achieving that goal.

Boschert has done an excellent job of showing how the PHEV community has managed to blur traditional lines of partisan beliefs and bring together people and schools of thought that are typically cast as mortal enemies. Along the way she also provides enough information on the inner workings of PHEVs, EVs, and HEVs to allow the reader to confidently enter the policy discussions surrounding the issue.

Although the book is a good introduction to the PHEV world and the people involved, it does have some weaknesses. Key among them is the near constant allusions to a conspiracy theory-style motivation behind the cancellations of the early EV projects.

The reader comes away from the book feeling manipulated into disliking car manufacturers. Boschert’s writing treats the management of major automakers in the same light as the mustache-twisting cartoon villains of Saturday morning cartoons rather than providing any serious insight into the economic and social reasoning for their decisions. Where those reasons are alluded to, they are immediately quashed with green rhetoric and conspiracy theory-style arguments.

Boschert’s arguments against the auto manufacturers fail on the simple fact that automakers are in their business to make money. If they could make money selling EVs, they would; it needn’t be any more complex than that. Additionally, Boschert's own research, current HEVs, and developing PHEVs models demonstrate that automakers are responding to market pressures and developing hybrid-electric options as battery capabilities, government regulation, safety and liability issues are addressed.

Despite these weaknesses, Boschert has created a useful tool for those interested in looking into the world of hybrid vehicles. Giving us glimpses into the lives and motivations of the people who helped make those vehicles a reality only helped to make her book more accessible to the average person.

Update for web review: One further aspect of the book does need to be highlighted. Boschert expresses concern in portions of the book about the environmenal costs of charging PHEVs with coal-based electricty. However, the recently released EPRI/NRDC report on PHEVs clearly shows that even with low market penetration of PHEVs into the automobile market and heavy use of older, carbon-intensive, coal-based energy, overall carbon dioxide emissions would decrease by 163 million metric tonnes per year. As PHEV market penetration increased and more efficient coal-fueled energy technologies (such as IGCC and super critical boilers) replaced aging infrastructure, carbond dioxide reductions soared to 612 million metric tonnes per year.