The Chevy Volt Runs on Coal

Holman Jenkins writes in today’s WSJ:

GM must be thrilled, if not a little disoriented, by its latest leap to Apple-like cultural relevance, given the passionate fanboy debate over its latest disclosures about the Chevy Volt.

The car, strictly speaking, isn’t at every moment driven by electric power. At highway speeds, the gasoline engine that generates electricity when the batteries are depleted will, under certain circumstances, directly turn the planetary ring gear and help drive the car.

I know. When I heard this, I ran about the house shrieking “Well, then, the Volt is not an ‘extended-range’ EV but a series-parallel hybrid!” I’m sure you did too.

Some of the more ardent students of such esoterica now accuse GM of having “lied” about the Volt’s fundamental nature, but GM must be astonished that so many want to take up the argument at all. As a bonus, debating the Volt’s electric bona fides changes the subject from the mileage tests starting to come in from independent reviewers, such as Popular Mechanics.

GM claimed for months that the car would get 50 miles per gallon (mpg) when in gas mode, though this was scarcely believable. Popular Mechanics finds that, running on gas, the car gets 38 mpg on the highway (burning premium fuel no less), or slightly worse mileage than its conventional sister, the Chevy Cruze. And this performance, GM now tells us, is 10% to 15% better than it would be if the gas engine weren’t sometimes directly driving the wheels.

Discerning critics still applaud the originality and cleverness of GM’s engineering, and we will too. But the question lingers: Why bother with all this complicated doohickery?

Cars account for 9% of America’s CO2 output, making power plants a much more sensible target if your worry is global warming. Ironically, the Volt rolls out amid news that an investor is abandoning a big U.S. nuclear project, leaving America more dependent than ever on “dirty” coal for its electricity.

Storing electricity — which is what the Volt’s batteries do — is probably the least efficient thing you can do with the output of such plants. Then again, perhaps this explains the rapturous greeting the Volt is receiving from the utility industry.

The rest here.

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