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Plug-In Hybrids: Building Our Way Out of a Problem

July 18, 2007 By Ben Pierson, Chuck Green Civic Engagement Fellow
Despite conservative resistance, Minnesota is emerging as a national leader in the development of bio-fuels, wind energy and renewable energy standards. Now there's headway in another area of energy innovation, thanks to research at Minnesota State University at Mankato on groundbreaking plug-in hybrid automotive technologies.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, are similar to current hybrids, combining a battery-powered electric motor and a gasoline engine. PHEVs have an extra battery pack, rechargeable via a standard 120-volt home outlet.  On the road, power comes from the gas engine with battery assistance or from electricity alone, burning no gasoline and emitting no greenhouse gasses.  PHEVs typically have a range of between 20 and 40 miles on electric-only power, but get the equivalent of around 100 miles per gallon of gas. Find more information about PHEVs here.

The Minnesota 
Center for Automotive Research (MN CAR)  is part of Minnesota State-Mankato's College of Science, Engineering, and Technology.  MN CAR students and faculty study alternative fuels, working with government and industry on issues of fuel economy and emissions.

Researchers at MN CAR have been working to develop a flexible-fuel PHEV that can burn Minnesota-grown biofuels such as ethanol and soy diesel.  And as more of the electrical power generated in Minnesota becomes renewable (the state has mandated that 25 percent of Minnesota's electricity come from non-fossil fuel sources such as wind or biomass by 2025), plug-in hybrids will become even more environmentally friendly.  Eventually, PHEVs could be completely powered by domestic energy sources, lessening the nation's need for imported oil.

Currently, the only way to get a PHEV is to install a plug-in kit into a standard hybrid vehicle, such as a Toyota Prius.  In the Twin Cities, the car-sharing program HourCar  has a Prius that has been converted to a PHEV by Hymotion, a green-technology company in Toronto.  The HourCar PHEV is parked at the Mississippi Market in St. Paul.  Users typically get 70-80 miles per gallon, although city driving at low speeds can yield 100+ miles per gallon.

Unfortunately, Detroit automakers have been slow to adopt PHEV technology.

On July 9, Ford Motor Co. announced a partnership with a California energy firm to test and market a PHEV. General Motors Corp. and other manufacturers are planning, developing, and testing prototypes (including the Chevrolet Volt, pictured below), but a production PHEV appears to be at

least several years away.  Internet search giant Google's philanthropic arm recently got in on the PHEV action, launching RechargeIT.  RechargeIT has distributed more than $1 million in grants and promises an additional $10 million of PHEV technology investments.

A 2006 Minnesota law requires the state to buy PHEVs when they become available and created a task-force to investigate the potential for building PHEVs in Minnesota.  (See the press release here.)  A possible production site would be the soon-to-close Ford plant in St. Paul, which would minimize many of the steep startup costs of auto manufacturing.

Plug-in hybrids offer the promise of dramatically increased energy efficiency and greatly decreased environmental harm in our daily travels. Further support and development is needed for this electrifying new possibility to become widespread, and Minnesota, already a leader in green technology, can lead the way in research, renewable energy and plug-in hybrid manufacturing.


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