What's the difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid?
A hybrid car runs partly on gas and partly from a battery. A plug-in hybrid has three sources of power: regular gas, the hybrid battery powered by the moving engine and electricity from a power outlet. So during the first 40 miles of a trip, a plug-in hybrid will get as much as 100 miles per gallon by using electricity instead of gas. Once the battery runs out, the car runs like a regular hybrid again.
The technology to convert hybrids to plug-ins hasn't been readily available in Minnesota. But now it is because of a new partnership among the city of Minneapolis, a local car dealership and a company that produces conversion kits.
At a news conference, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said this partnership will encourage people to use less gas and help create more green jobs.
"We want to make sure we're on the forefront of hybrid technology, because this is an industry that should be in Minnesota," said Rybak. "There should be federal incentives to retool the Ford plant to turn in into a place to make hybrids and plug-in hybrids, so that people who are currently being laid off from a Ford plant, cars that are currently sitting unsold on show rooms, should instead be workers who are being put back to work at a plug-in hybrid facility and cars that are being sold, because they are green cars."
The conversion is pretty pricey: $10,000. The Legislature passed funding for the state's Office of Energy Security to create a new grant for hybrid owners. State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, says the grant will help Minnesotans with up to 30 percent of the conversion cost.
"As a result of this legislation that was passed, we now have, in a matter of very short period of time, we'll have individuals grants available to consumers that want to convert their existing hybrids to a plug-in model," said Hornstein.
While hybrid vehicles use less gas and generate fewer emissions, some environmentalists have raised concerns about the energy source used to charge hybrid batteries. In Minnesota about two thirds of that energy comes from coal plants.
Both Rybak and Hornstein say they hope the state will one day generate more energy from solar and wind. In the meantime, existing power plants waste a lot of energy during off peak times at night, so people would charge their cars at night and capture that wasted energy.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency studied emissions from both the regular hybrid and the plug-in hybrid. They looked at several kinds of pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
The MPCA's Anne Claflin says both types of hybrids are cleaner for almost all of the pollutants the MPCA tested when compared to a regular car.
"Either a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid is a cleaner vehicle even when you have a lot of coal-based electricity charging that battery," said Claflin.
Another expert at the MPCA says the benefit of plug-in hybrids will be fully realized as the state improves the way it produces clean energy from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power.
And another researcher cautions consumers to think about other factors besides emissions.
John Broadhurst, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota, says the life cycle of hybrid cars isn't that environmentally-friendly.
"You also have the problem of the energy that went into making the sophisticated batteries of the plug-in hybrid. That's nontrivial, because they use materials which are energy intensive to mine and refine," said Broadhurst.
Broadhurst says when the battery dies, the cadmium in the battery ends up in the environment. Cadmium is about as toxic as mercury.
Mayor R.T. Rybak says he's pushing to get a solar panel at the Minneapolis Convention Center, so that people will be able to charge their batteries with renewable energy. Ideally, he wants people to have their own solar panels in their garages.
Rybak says that of course it will take some time. He acknowledges that the plug-in hybrid technology is still experimental and will need some fine-tuning along the way.