|Plug-in Cars Sparking a Power Shift|
September, 23, 2008
Traffic was piling up going from West Seattle to Interstate 5 — and
that meant Rich Feldman had to drive a few feet and stop, over and over, all the
way up the access ramp.
As they looked out at the line of cars ahead of their plug-in Toyota Prius,
Feldman and the business executive sitting beside him, John Clark, couldn't have
"This is the perfect kind of traffic. We love traffic like this," Clark
enthused. A couple of minutes later, Clark peeked at his laptop computer and
gave Feldman the good news: "You're at 159 on this trip," he said. That's 159
miles per gallon.
Feldman, a senior policy adviser in the Seattle mayor's office, and Clark, the
president and chief executive officer of Seattle-based V2Green, were giving an
on-the-road demonstration of how plug-in electric vehicles will change the way
people think about driving — and about using electricity.
The converted Toyota Prius that Feldman was driving is the first of 14 vehicles
that will be used by Seattle's municipal utility and other regional agencies to
gather data on plug-in driving patterns, as part of a yearlong experiment
monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.
V2Green — which was acquired just this week by another clean-energy company,
Virginia-based GridPoint — is providing hardware and software enhancements that
will let researchers monitor every move the cars make. V2Green's system sends
telemetry from the car continuously via a cellular phone link to a remote
computer. The readings are analyzed on a remote computer, and then posted on a
password-protected Web site.
The read-outs on the car's speed, mileage, fuel economy and location are far
more detailed than the numbers displayed on the Prius' dashboard display. What's
more, they can be checked remotely on a wireless laptop (like Clark's) or back
at the Idaho Falls lab, usually in real time. The experiment serves as a
minute-by-minute reality check for the current hype over plug-in hybrids.
"It's looking at the vehicles first, and asking if this is a feasible way,
economically and technologically, to move people," said Jim Francfort, the
project's lead researcher.
The hot new thing
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, are the hot new thing in automotive
technology: Some cars, such as Seattle City Light's motor-pool Prius, are
already being converted into PHEVs. Toyota as well as GM, Chrysler and other
automakers are talking about rolling out showroom-ready PHEVs in the 2010 time frame.
At current energy rates, the per-mile cost of running an electric vehicle is
about a quarter the equivalent cost for gasoline. That doesn't consider the
higher up-front cost of electric vehicles or the back-end cost of battery
replacement. There may be other factors that affect PHEV performance as well,
and that's the whole point of the pilot projects being conducted in Seattle and elsewhere.
The Energy Department is working with utilities across the country to measure
the actual performance of present-day PHEVs, and figure out how their rise could
affect electrical usage patterns in the years ahead. The studies could lead to
"smart charging" technologies, with incentives for consumers who charge up their
cars during off-peak hours.
Previous studies have found that no additional power plants would be required to
power the millions of PHEVs expected to be on U.S. roads in 2030 — that is, if
off-peak smart charging is available. But if every PHEV driver decided to charge
up at 5 p.m., researchers said 160 additional large plants would have to be
built in the next 20 years to handle the load.
Invisible to consumers
Colorado-based Xcel Energy has been studying smart-charging techniques over the
past year as part of its SmartGridCity pilot project. Consumers can plug in
their specially equipped Ford Escape PHEVs anytime they want to. However, the
actual charging is scheduled by the utility, based on the car's driving history.
Xcel switches on the flow of power into the car's batteries via a cell-phone link.
The next phase of the experiment will test vehicle-to-grid electrical flow. The
"V2G" scheme would enable a utility to borrow power from a plugged-in car's
battery to cope with peak electrical loads (with the car owner's advance
permission, of course). Once the peak has passed, the borrowed power would be
put back in the battery. Like smart charging, V2G would provide a payoff to the
consumer in the form of a rate break or a rebate for utility charges.
Sandy K. Simon, Xcel's director of utility innovation and SmartGrid strategy,
said the smart-charging experiment has worked pretty much as expected so far.
The system is essentially invisible to consumers.
"We haven't had any issues with the battery being drawn down when they needed it," she said.
When it comes to plug-ins, the most noticeable adjustment takes place behind the
wheel rather than under the hood. "What we did see was huge behavioral changes
in how people drive," Simon said.