Plugging In to Austin's Future

The cars of the future are here

When I found out that last weekend's Austin Energy-sponsored AltCar Expo was offering test drives for several of the alternative-fuel, electric, and hybrid rides on display, I joked that I should write about hot-rodding around town in eco-friendly cars. But on Saturday, not long after steering the all-electric eBox concept car onto the MoPac Express­way – where it was soon approaching 100 miles per hour – I realized I was behind the wheel of a breakthrough that was nothing to joke about: a 200-horsepower-plus all-electric vehicle with a range of 150 miles that fully recharges in as little as two hours ... and seriously hauls ass. Cars with stats like that are likely what many of the 4,800 or so attendees came looking for.

I was one of very few to drive the $70,000 prototype eBox, but many expo-goers did get to cruise alt-cars like a natural-gas-fueled Honda Civic, a propane-powered Chevy Impala, and an all-electric three-wheel pickup made by ZAP, among others. Inside, dozens more green wheels were on display, including hybrid buses, electric scooters, and propane lawn mowers. Local biofuel purveyors DieselGreen Fuels had a Hummer SUV and a Volkswagen Golf capable of running on diesel, biodiesel, or straight veggie oil. Austin-based Lighthouse Solar had a solar-panel-laden carport/charging station on hand. And of course, there were Toyota Prius hybrids and plug-ins aplenty.

Exhibitors were also showing off technology to enable Vehicle to Grid (V2G) energy-sharing between plug-in hybrids and electric utilities. Austin Energy has made the cultivation of such technology a priority through its national Plug-In Partners campaign, and the city actually began testing V2G technology last February. Plug-In Partners' Marguerite Jones explained that a city fleet of 100-mile-per-gallon plug-ins – which have much greater battery capacity than today's hybrids – could store wind, solar, or unused conventional energy in beefed-up battery packs and ultimately act as a means of energy storage for the electric grid. Instead of cranking up a polluting natural-gas power plant to meet peak electricity demand on a hot summer evening, the utility could draw electricity from all the plugged-in cars parked all over town. Jones said 374 fleets, cities, and municipalities, including Austin, have placed "soft orders" with manufacturers since 2005, urging them to build the vehicles. Toyota and General Motors have indicated they'll have plug-ins on the road by 2011, while Ford, Volkswagen, and others are testing similar models. Citing that success, AE announced this weekend that the Plug-In Partners campaign has officially ended.

David Kaplan of California-based V2Green showed off software technology that allows a plug-in hybrid's computer to communicate directly with a utility in a V2G connection. In what's called "grid-optimized charging" or "smart-charging," the software is programmed to know when you need your car and waits to pull energy from the grid until electricity demand is low. In Austin's case, plug-ins could be programmed to recharge in the middle of the night, when underutilized wind power is often abundant.

The eBox, developed by AC Propulsion, also of California, was the only full-electric vehicle on hand with V2G capabilities. Head software engineer Owen Emry said the eBox's unique built-in charger not only allows owners to plug the car into the wall (rather than an external device) for recharging but permits owners to actually run their house off their car, which he says could power an average home for about three days. "Our sense is that electrics are the end game," Emery said, which is why AC isn't bothering with hybrids.

Civil engineer Clay Livingston visited the expo on Saturday because he'd like to eventually replace his gas-powered VW Jetta with an electric vehicle for his commute from the North Loop area to work near Loop 360 and FM 2222. "If Austin Energy communicated a more clear picture of how they're planning to expand their renewable energy system, I'd be more confident about buying an EV," he said. Austin Energy plans to meet 30% of the city's energy needs with renewable resources by 2020, including 100 megawatts of solar power. Spokesman Ed Clark added that 99% of the utility's renewable power comes from West Texas wind power, which blows strongest at night, making it perfectly harmonious with the recharging needs of EVs and plug-ins. As part of the city's pilot program to test V2Green's technology, AE has upgraded two city-owned Prius hybrids to plug-ins and installed the smart-charge system.

Livingston said he'd like to see American-made EVs charged with American-made solar panels. "Both could be made right here," he said. "I like the idea of spending more money up front to build these things now with Amer­ican workers, rather than shipping money overseas later."

See "Roger Duncan's Night Visions," for more on Austin Energy.

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