Could the Chevy Volt Really Help Reduce Global Warming?

Accolades keep pouring in for the Chevy Volt, the electric car darling of the 2011 Detroit auto show, including the show's North American Car of the Year award this week from a jury of swooning auto journalists. In his corny acceptance speech, General Motors vice-chairman Tom Stephens' thanked "all of the jurors who Volted, or voted, for the Chevrolet Volt," a plug-in electric hybrid with gas backup. Its all-electric rival, the Nissan Leaf, was a runner-up.

But public acceptance, pricier sticker numbers, charging challenges, and a willingness to break old driving habits (goodbye to pedal to the metal) will determine whether the Volt and its brethren actually electrify (sorry, couldn't resist) the auto marketplace -- and ultimately improve the environment -- or fall short of current industry and media hype.

The image of these electric vehicles has gone from geeky to sexy with surprising speed, as a recent Atlantic Wire column, "Are American Cars Cool Again?," pointed out. They are on the cutting edge of several promising new clean car and truck technologies with the potential to substantially reduce oil consumption, drive down air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and help curb climate change in the decades to come. But first Americans have to start buying them and successors to come, and the public and private sector need to buy in as well.

But could this time be different? With gas prices rising again, will 2011 emerge as the breakout year for the electric car?

A new study, released Tuesday by the non-partisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change, provides a roadmap for lowering overall transportation emissions in the decades ahead. One important part of the equation is the degree to which technological advances, supported by the public and private sector, will promote more fuel-efficient, less gas-hungry vehicles that consumers are eager to buy.

Transportation accounts for a big chunk of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions today -- more than one-fourth of the total, with cars and light trucks accounting for the biggest portion -- and is projected to continue its growth. The study contends that "it is possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector cost-effectively by up to 65 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 by improving vehicle efficiency, shifting to less carbon intensive fuels, changing travel behavior, and operating more efficiently."

The Pew report outlines three possible scenarios for reducing overall transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 -- a projected drop of 17 percent on the low-end, a mid-ground of about 40 percent, and an ambitious 65 percent reduction goal. The most optimistic scenario would likely require more government action than currently seems achievable, given the climate change gridlock in Washington. But clean energy crosses party lines and support for increased public and private policies to push the transportation technology envelope toward more environmentally friendly options seems increasingly more palatable.

Which brings us back to that cool, clean, green Chevy Volt.

"The amount of attention in the press to electric vehicles is great," said transportation expert Steven Plotkin of the Argonne National Laboratory, who co-authored the new Pew report with David Greene of the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy. "We'll see if the public is as enthusiastic as we hope them to be.... It's much too early to tell."

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A new transportation fuel mix, including electricity, hydrogen fuel cells, and biofuels, is expected to play a far more significant role in powering greener passenger cars in the future, said Plotkin. The report notes that "electricity has recently reappeared as a strong contender, thanks to the development of lithium-ion batteries and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles" with electric ranges of up to 40 miles that can then shift to gasoline operation when the battery runs out. The all-electric Leaf, however, has a maximum range of about 100 miles per battery charge.

Presented by

Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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