Naked City

Austin on the plug-in hybrid scene

The DaimlerChrysler Sprinter van
The DaimlerChrysler Sprinter van

Think of the city of Austin as the Green Godfather. In the coming months, Austin hopes to call together a mafia of 50 like-minded, large U.S. cities that are fed up with pollution and high fuel costs. They will then go to automakers and make them an offer they can't refuse: a call for the mass production of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles capable of triple-digit fuel economy and up to 35 miles of all-electric driving. Armed with commitments for fleet orders by government and business, plenty of cash (like Austin's $1 million in incentives) to buy the first round of vehicles, and tens of thousands of petitions from the public expressing demand for the vehicles, this mafia will tell automakers that the time for change is now.

Among a who's who of elected officials, business leaders, and environmental advocates in attendance Monday, the city officially kicked off its Plug-In Austin Campaign, which it hopes to expand coast to coast to become the Plug-in America Campaign. Based on today's hybrids, the plug-ins use larger batteries plus special hardware and systems that allow them to take on extra electric charge by plugging into a conventional wall outlet. This allows the vehicle to provide an average day of petroleum-free driving, doubling the fuel economy of a conventional hybrid and more than tripling that of a nonhybrid vehicle. (The vehicle functions as a conventional hybrid when the extra charge runs out.) The city will begin testing the only prototype currently available, the DaimlerChrysler Sprinter van, in early 2006.

Plug-In Austin advocates uniting the transportation and utility sectors by electrifying the transportation grid. In Austin's case, that translates into using the abundant West Texas wind power available through Austin Energy's GreenChoice program to charge the plug-in hybrids at night when the wind blows hardest. At prevailing energy rates, an electric gallon of gas would cost about 70 to 80 cents.

The plug-in campaign has been on the drawing board at City Hall for almost a year. Last September, the City Council passed a resolution in support of plug-in hybrid development, in December council members approved a lease for the Sprinter prototype, and the council approved a financial incentive program for personal plug-in hybrid purchases in March. In June, Mayor Will Wynn and Austin Energy's Roger Duncan detailed the plug-in hybrid campaign at the Conference of Mayors in Chicago, where Wynn signed the Kyoto Protocol-modeled U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement on global warming. Since then, Duncan has been traveling the country to events like the Sundance Summit on Climate Change, where he addressed 45 mayors, building support for the plug-in campaign. "Everywhere I go around the country, people are very enthusiastic about the concept," he said.

Addressing the crowd Monday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett called the act of sating the U.S.'s insatiable desire for fossil fuels a national security issue, directly related to the "tragic and unfortunate foreign entanglements in which we find our young people around the world." According to city data, plug-in hybrids would cut annual gasoline consumption for many Americans by 70%, and could reduce the 50% of Texas' pollution that comes from refineries and vehicle emissions. Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce President (and former Austin Mayor) Kirk Watson said, by plugging cars into Austin Energy's grid, we "keep transportation dollars in our communities rather than sending them to foreign countries." He also noted that the battery technology needed for plug-ins is being produced here in Austin by Valence Technology.

As one of two producers of the lightweight, large-format lithium ion batteries the plug-ins need, Valence is positioned for the hybrid market to come, and has partnered with EDrive Systems of California to retrofit existing Toyota Prius hybrids as plug-ins. The prototype they brought to Austin in June averaged more than 125 miles per gallon. In the next few years, says Valence's Marc Kohler, the partners will sell aftermarket upgrade kits for all hybrid models on the market. Auto manufacturers will inevitably take over, he said, and spurring that process is what Plug-In Austin is all about. For more info or to sign the petition, visit www.pluginaustin.org.

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