FAQ: Plug-in vehicles
PHEVs are just one of the technologies that the NSW Government is exploring to reduce pollution from passenger vehicles.
What is SWITCH?
SWITCH is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle created by installing an extra battery pack in a hybrid car. It was commissioned by the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) using funding from the Greenhouse Innovation Fund. The conversion was carried out by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology Sydney.
SWITCH has both a petrol and an electric engine, like a hybrid vehicle. However, SWITCH's extra batteries can be recharged by plugging it into a household power point. The extra batteries mean that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have a longer all-electric range than regular hybrid vehicles and therefore have lower fuel consumption and emissions.
How will SWITCH be used?
SWITCH will be used as an OEH fleet car. Its use will be monitored to provide information on the practicalities and benefits of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. This information will be available on the SWITCH Facebook page.
The conversion given to SWITCH allows the car to feed electricity back into the grid. This will help us to understand how plug-in hybrid electric vehicles can integrate into the electricity network, including the economics of feeding additional electricity back and how using these cars could help meet or manage peak electricity demand.
Why plug-in hybrid electric vehicles?
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have greater battery power than regular hybrid petrol-electric cars. This means that they emit fewer greenhouse gases and less urban pollution, and have much lower running costs, than internal combustion engine vehicles or regular hybrid cars. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is cleaner than an internal combustion engine car even when it is powered by conventional coal-fired electricity.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have a large battery pack to drive the electric motor and a petrol motor so they have the flexibility to be used for both short- and long-distance trips.
How much lower are the emissions?
When travelling at low speeds (below 35 km/h) or waiting at traffic lights (not moving) SWITCH produces no emissions (unlike an idling internal combustion engine vehicle). Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles consume less fuel than conventional hybrid vehicles and much less fuel than regular internal combustion engine vehicles. This means that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles create far less air pollution.
If just one per cent of the NSW passenger vehicle fleet were plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, the savings would be between 36,700 and 79,100 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per annum. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle will give a 77 per cent reduction in emissions of nitrous oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), compared to a similar-sized internal combustion engine vehicle.
How does the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle feed power back to the grid?
SWITCH can feed electricity back to the grid through an inverter (the same system is often used when household solar photovoltaic panels feed power into the grid).
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles such as SWITCH that have feedback capacity can provide more secure local power and make clean energy options more attractive and viable. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle battery can act as storage for electricity produced at times of low demand (such as overnight). The power that it stores can then be fed back during peak electricity demand. In this way it supports renewable energy sources by buffering the variability of output for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
Why would I feed power back to the grid? What's in it for me?
Charging during off-peak times and feeding back during peak times could reduce the cost of powering your car even more. In the case of SWITCH, the feedback ability is being tested to explore smart grid potential, assess how it can reduce costs, and understand the effects on the car more clearly.
Won't electric cars mean more electricity is needed and therefore more power plants?
Research has shown that there is enough capacity in the NSW electricity grid during off-peak hours to provide enough power to drive all of Sydney's cars each day1. While day-time charging could increase peak electricity demand, charging vehicles overnight (off-peak) would use spare capacity currently available without requiring new power plants.
The technology to ensure that electric vehicles are recharged during periods of low electricity demand is currently under development. Such systems could allow increased use of renewable energy in the electricity grid by coordinating vehicle recharging during times of high output from wind or solar power plants. This area of technology is expected to develop rapidly once the uptake of electric vehicles increases.
Don't hybrid electric and electric cars just shift emissions from transport to stationary energy?
If GreenPower or solar photovoltaic panels are used to charge the car, then emissions are reduced overall and not shifted. In addition, using plug-in hybrid electric vehicle batteries to store energy which is then fed into the grid is useful as this can:
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles can act as storage systems, absorbing power when it is created and feeding it back to the grid when required. Research suggests that 5 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (40 per cent of Australia's fleet) could allow 50 per cent of Australia's electricity generation to come from wind power. This would mitigate 131 million tonnes of CO2e per year, equivalent to 65 per cent of the emissions of Australia's coal-fired power stations every year.
How does SWITCH know when to feed electricity back into the grid?
A switch inside SWITCH's boot controls whether the power flows to or from the car. If the car is set to feed electricity into the grid then it will discharge the batteries until they are low and then stop before they are fully discharged. The car will then need to be recharged before it is driven again. Systems that automate the timing of charging and feedback are being developed.
What is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle like to drive?
SWITCH, the department's plug-in hybrid electric vehicle drives like a regular hybrid car. The change from electric to petrol engine is automatic as with most hybrids, and the inside of the vehicle is the same.
How far can I drive with SWITCH?
On average, you can drive further in a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle on a tank of petrol than you can in a regular internal combustion engine vehicle. This is because battery power is used as well as the petrol engine. SWITCH can travel up to 1000 km on a tank under city driving conditions. In comparison, an average large family vehicle has a driving range of approximately 790 km per tank.
SWITCH has an all-electric range of 40 km at inner city driving speeds (35 km/h).
Will I be lagging in the slow lane driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle?
No, the car has equal or better acceleration than an internal combustion engine vehicle. However, gentle acceleration and other eco-driving techniques will result in lower fuel consumption and can extend the all-electric driving range.
How long does it take to charge the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle?
It takes only 4 hours to fully charge the batteries. The batteries also charge themselves during driving using regenerative braking (the same system as in a regular hybrid vehicle).
Where can I charge the batteries?
The car can be charged from any regular electrical point. However a special feature of the OEH plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is that it can also feed electricity back the grid when required. In order to do this, it must be plugged into an inverter.
How long do batteries last?
The batteries added to SWITCH are the same kind (lithium ion) as the batteries used in a regular hybrid. The indications have been that these batteries last at least as long as the car. However, the technology is new so that there are few results to show the battery life in ‘real-life’ conditions.
How much will I save? How much do they cost to run?
Fuel costs for the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle are substantially lower than for internal combustion engine vehicles. For example, it would cost as little as 50 cents a day to drive the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle charging with off-peak power, compared with about four dollars a day to drive an average large family vehicle (based on a 30km daily commute).
Even when the cost of batteries is included (which is substantial in comparison to the cost of the car), the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is cheaper to fuel on a daily basis by as much as a dollar a day if charging off-peak.
When can I buy one?
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are cutting-edge technology at the moment. In particular, the ability of the OEH plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to feed electricity back into the grid is new in Australia.
However, several vehicle manufacturers are developing full electric or plug-in hybrid electric cars and some are expected to be commercially available in Australia soon. In the meantime, the only way to get a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is to convert a regular hybrid. Some companies can carry out these conversions.
How much will they cost to buy?
At the moment, converting a hybrid car into a plug-in hybrid is expensive as the technology is very new. The Institute for Sustainable Futures installed 20 extra lithium ion batteries into the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to supplement the existing battery capacity; the cost of this conversion was about $50,000.
What else is the government doing?
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are just one of the technologies that the NSW Government is exploring to reduce greenhouse pollution. The government is open to all technologies and approaches to reducing pollution from passenger vehicles and has a wide range of policies aimed at reducing emissions from passenger vehicles. These include:
the Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle trial, to help evaluate the performance and suitability of an electric vehicle in a working fleet
the Electric Vehicle Taskforce, to review the technology, infrastructure, policy, and legislation that would ensure NSW motorists could gain early access to electric vehicles
the Cleaner NSW Government Fleet Initiative (green and hybrid technology vehicles have more than doubled in number in the StateFleet to 370 since 2005, and more efficient small and medium cars now make up the majority of cars in the fleet)
the NSW Cleaner Vehicles and Fuels Strategy, which includes a range of vehicle and fuel related initiatives:
vapour recovery at service stations
the Summertime Low-Volatility Petrol Program
the NSW Diesel Retrofit Program
the environmental rating of heavy vehicles
benchmarking the vehicle fleet
the NSW FleetWise Partnership
community awareness and education.
1Albrecht, A., Holyoak, N., Raicu, R., Pudney, P. & Zito, R. 2009, Electric vehicles: the solution to emissions from transport?, Institute for Sustainable Systems and Technologies, University of South Australia.
Page last updated: 27 May 2011