I have a new article in Salon, "The car of the future is here," about plug-in hybrids. The two central points of the article are:

  1. Plug-in hybrids (and electric cars) are an essential climate strategy, enabling renewable power (even intermittent sources like wind) to become a major low-cost transportation fuel.
  2. Practical, affordable plug-in hybrids will be here in a few years — even if we don’t get a technology breakthrough in batteries.

(I am even more confident of these conclusions given the amazing joint announcement today by Renault-Nissan, Project Better Place, and Israel — see below.)

If you read the Salon article, you’ll know more than billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who recently said:

Forget plug-ins. They are nice toys. But they will not be material to climate change.

The subject deserves a far more serious discussion. Transportation is the toughest sector in which to achieve deep carbon emissions reductions. Of the three major alternative fuels that could plausibly provide a low-carbon substitute for a significant amount of petroleum:

I was especially impressed by AFS Trinity’s plug-in hybrid design, which I test drove last year:

I am even more heartened about the prospects for pure electric vehicles (EVs) in other countries after seeing the following truly ground-breaking announcement today.

In Jerusalem, Renault-Nissan, Project Better Place, and Israel have committed to a major nationwide EV plan:

100% electric vehicles: Renault’s vehicles [available 2011] will run on pure electricity for all functions. The objective of zero emissions will be achieved, while at the same time offering driving performances similar to a 1.6 liter gasoline engine. Renault’s electric vehicles will be equipped with lithium-ion batteries, ensuring greater driving range and longevity.
Innovative business model: For the first time in the electric vehicle business, ownership of the car is separated from the requirement to own a battery. Consumers will buy and own their car and subscribe to energy, including the use of the battery, on a basis of kilometers driven. This model is similar to the way mobile phones are sold, with an initial purchase and a monthly subscription for the mobility service.
Competitive cost of ownership: The Israeli government recently extended a tax incentive on the purchase of any zero-emissions vehicle until 2019, making them more affordable. Combined with the lower cost of electricity as opposed to fuel-based energy, and the vehicle’s lifetime guarantee, the total cost of ownership for the customer will be significantly lower than that of a fuel-based car over the life cycle of the vehicle.
Electric Recharge Grid infrastructure: California-based Project Better Place plans to deploy a massive network of battery charging spots. Driving range will no longer be an obstacle, because customers will be able to plug their cars into charging units in any of the 500,000 charging spots in Israel. An on-board computer system will indicate to the driver the remaining power supply and the nearest charging spot. Nissan, through its joint venture with NEC, has created a battery pack that meets the requirements of the electric vehicle and will mass-produce it. Renault is working on development of exchangeable batteries for continuous mobility. [!] The entire framework will go through a series of tests starting this year.
Perfect first mass market: In Israel, where 90% of car owners drive less than 70 kilometers per day, and all major urban centers are less than 150 kilometers apart, electric vehicles would be the ideal means of transportation and could therefore cover most of the population’s transportation needs.

The private sector is stepping up to the plate with world-class ingenuity, and other countries are forming partnerships to begin deploying electric drive cars. Is the U.S. government going to join the game, or once again abandon the field to more forward-thinking countries?