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Power Connections

Plugging in, Hitting the Road

Better batteries are a must

If electric vehicles are to become mainstream, small batteries must be improved. Thirteen co-ops in a dozen states are road testing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and most of them are part of a project sponsored by the Cooperative Research Network (CRN) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.

“It’s really great that electric cooperatives got involved in this technology early on,” says Alan Shedd, principal, commercial and industrial business development for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, who has logged thousands of miles driving a co-op-owned PHEV. “Participating co-ops deserve a lot of credit for getting out there and making this initiative happen.”

PHEVs take traditional hybrid cars—which typically supplement a gasoline engine with nickel-metal hydride batteries recharged by braking—a step further by using larger, more powerful lithium-ion batteries that can be charged overnight from a standard 110-volt outlet. Batteries alone power the cars over short distances; a gasoline engine kicks in for longer hauls. As a result, PHEVs can average from 120 to 150 miles per gallon on trips of less than 40 miles.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), of which electric co-ops are members, recently noted that a dramatic increase in the number of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road over the next 20 years could reduce total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 9 percent. The EPRI estimates that 100 million PHEVs would do the trick; there were 247 million registered vehicles on the road in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

However, research on batteries needs to be revved up. Lithium-ion batteries powering PHEVs are similar to what’s used in cell phones and laptops, although they’re not fully proven in cost-effective automotive applications. But there’s good news: A report by the California Air Resources Board found that manufacturers were “making impressive technical progress worldwide,” especially in improving longevity and safety.

What’s more, General Motors is set to roll a plug-in vehicle onto lots late this year. The Chevrolet Volt will rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for its electric power, getting approximately 40 miles per charge, according to early GM estimates. After that, the driver can switch to a small gasoline-powered engine. “The key to high-mileage performance is for a Volt driver to plug into the electric grid at least once each day,” notes General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson. The resulting electricity costs would add up to roughly 3 cents a mile.

CRN has recently partnered with Ford Motor Company, which received a $30 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop its electric fleet. Ford plans on releasing its own plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in 2012. The partnership could provide CRN with opportunities to test and purchase Ford’s early commercial PHEVs.

 “If PHEVs were to be used on any widespread scale, it could create some very unique challenges for [electricity] distribution systems,” cautions Barry Lawson, senior manager, power delivery, for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “It would be expensive and time-consuming to upgrade the grid to deal with such a unique new technology.”

He concludes: “We must take measured, careful steps with anything related to developing technology. New energy storage technology and equipment have the potential to provide benefits to the electric utility system, but it must be done in a reliable, safe and affordable manner.”

Scott Gates writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.