AE & Plug-In Hybrids: Power Coming and Going

Electric cars could both run clean and boost our power supply

Roger Duncan
Roger Duncan (Photo By John Anderson)

There's a new technology in cars that could save gas and stop construction of new power plants – and Austin Energy is leading the field in its development.

In 2003, Austin Energy deputy general manager Roger Duncan was asked by Mayor Will Wynn to find innovative ways to make Austin greener. At the time, AE was struggling over how to manage West Texas wind power. While it's clean energy, the wind doesn't keep to a schedule. Production often peaks at night, when demand is lowest. According to Duncan, the engineers realized that "the automobile battery is the perfect storage for wind."

Duncan started looking at plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The difference between a PHEV and a regular hybrid is that a PHEV has bigger batteries and an onboard charger. Plug the PHEV into a regular wall socket overnight and it charges the battery off the spare wind power. On the road, it charges the battery from fuel use, like a regular hybrid. In 2005, AE launched Plug-In Austin, a campaign to promote PHEVs.

The problem, and the solution, wasn't just for Austin. "It's the same across the country," said Duncan. "The difference between daytime and nighttime use is almost enough that all the vehicles out there could be plug-in hybrids and you wouldn't have to build an additional power plant." In 2006, the campaign went national as Plug-In Partners. Originally, the plan was to start similar campaigns in the nation's 50 largest cities, but by the big launch in D.C. in January last year, 75 utility companies and industry bodies such as the American Public Power Association backed the project.

There was one problem. Nobody made PHEVs, and no one was planning to. "When we asked automakers why they weren't making plug-in hybrids, they told us people didn't want 'em," said Duncan. So, to convince them, the program started taking "soft orders" – a promise to buy without a commitment. Duncan explained, "We'd talk to fleet managers and say, 'If there was a vehicle with these characteristics, would you buy so many sedans, SUVs, pickups, or whatever?'" Businesses were interested, and soon they had soft orders for more than 8,000 PHEVs. "That demonstrated to the automakers that there was a market, and that was the key component of the campaign," said Duncan. General Motors has committed to build two PHEVs – the Chevy Volt, which debuted at auto shows this year, and the Saturn View SUV, which should hit the market in 2009. Bus manufacturer International Corp. has already started production of plug-in school buses, and Austin will be getting one of the first batches.

The other side of this equation is called vehicle-to-grid, or V2G. Researchers at the University of Delaware have calculated that a family car produces 10 kilowatts – enough electricity for 10 houses. Under V2G, hybrids could charge up their batteries when driving. When they're parked, they are plugged into the wall, but instead of taking power from the grid, they put it back in. The driver is then paid by the power company for the excess energy they put in. Again, AE has been at the forefront of this, promoting the concept through Plug-In Partners. The technology is a little further away, with the energy-based PG&E Corp. having just developed its first working concept model, while AE is working on its own system.

Fit PHEVs and V2G together, and it could change not just driving but the whole electric industry. Under this model, PHEVs are plugged in at night to charge up on that surplus capacity. They charge up more on each drive, then dump that power back into the system when demand is high. This means unused power doesn't go to waste, and electricity firms don't have to build more plants.

While he's optimistic about the future of PHEVs, Duncan is cautious of taking too much credit. "We certainly didn't invent the plug-in hybrid, and there were movements to promote them before we came on board. But we're certainly a player in the national movement."

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