Austin pushes plug-ins

plugin.jpgAustin is pushing its reputation for both environmentalism and eccentricity* in intriguing directions with a proposal from the mayor’s office for using a fleet of plug-in hybrid vehicles as a daytime power source for the city (subscription required).

Plug-ins are a cousin of the hybrid that have much larger batteries and run primarily on an electrical charge from the grid. In the envisioned system, residents will charge their plug-ins at home nightly and park them by day in lots equipped with special sockets that can draw down power stored in the cars’ massive batteries to feed local demand for energy.

Most commuters’ cars sit idle during the day. During these periods of idleness, the energy stored in their batteries will be fed back into the grid. A computer controlled system will ensure that the batteries aren’t sucked dry and that drivers are properly paid for the energy they give back.

This elaborate electron-shuffling scheme serves several environmental purposes. The first is simply fuel-switching. Grid electricity is typically cleaner than gasoline on a per mile basis.

The second is demand-smoothing. Utilities have to support a baseload capacity sufficient to meet daytime energy needs. Much of this capacity goes to waste during the night. Plug-ins help to smooth demand both by charging during the night when demand is lowest and by giving back energy during the day when demand is highest. Smoother demand means more efficient operations for utilities.

The third is helping to make renewables more attractive. Texas is a leading producer of wind energy. But wind, for all its promise, comes with a few well-know drawbacks. Wind is intermittent; it doesn’t always blow. And it blows most strongly during the night, when it is needed least.

Proponents have noted for a long time that a key to overcoming wind’s deficiencies is marrying the energy source to a short-term power storage system that can smooth out the bumps in supply and demand.

Enter the plug-in hybrid, which not only offers convenient short-term power storage in the form of massive lithium-ion batteries, but also carts its owner to work in air-conditioned, renewable-energy fueled splendor.

At least, that’s the theory. Any workable system is still several years off. But it’s nice to see a local government working aggressively to align the necessary coalition of public and private partners behind an exciting and highly visible experiment.

* I lived in Austin for several years and can testify to the city’s aggressive quirkiness. A popular bumper sticker reads, “Keep Austin weird“.

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  1. Anonymous - March 28, 2007

    Living in a big city myself and commuting only 15min to work as it is has made me think of ditching my car for a smaller more eco-friendly electric hybrid. But I was wondering one important thing about the vehicle, can it be driven on the highway legally and logistically?

  2. Anonymous - March 28, 2007

    My undersanding is that there are no plug-in hybrids yet commercially available. Is tht correct? If not, who makes and sells them now?

  3. Adam Stein - March 28, 2007

    That is correct. Plug-ins are not commercially available yet, although several large automakers, including GM, have announced plans to introduce plug-ins soon.
    Currently the only way to get a plug-in is to get a converter kit for a standard hybrid. The manufacturers frown on this, but as far as I know, it works.

  4. Anonymous - March 28, 2007

    Austin is also throwing up toll roads left, right and center.

  5. John Cerveny - March 28, 2007

    Really good resources and information on plug-in hybrids (or PHEVs) can be found at the CalCars site, http://www.calcars.org. They’ve been leaders in the move toward PHEVs for several years. They’ve modified a number of Prius’s to make them plug-in capable, and have had great results–on the order of 100+ mpg.

    I own a Prius and have looked into the modification. Currently only a couple of companies will do it, and the cost is very high (~$9,000 to $10,000). Hopefully as programs like the one proposed for Austin get off the ground, the cost per conversion will come down to where mere mortals can afford it. New York state recently announced a contract to have a pretty good number of their hybrid fleet converted to PHEVs.

  6. glayol - March 28, 2007

    How about plug-ins from Europe. Are there any companies that will import electric vehicles?
    And how many years exactly are we away from plug-ins made for US market? My current car is 14 yrs old and I want to replace it soon.

  7. Daniel Barker - March 28, 2007

    Has anyone heard of Phoenix Motors? 250,000miles/12+ years on a single set of batteries? This is the future, now. Phoenix Motors is going to build electric cars in California that will last for many years before the batteries are replaced.
    I propose that rather than buy the car which you can’t afford, buy their batteries. They are far superior to anything else on the market, and will pay for themselves in a couple of years due to their extra long life.
    It is obvious we need to end our dependency on oil, beginning with foreign oil. This is a good first step.

  8. Lisa Lay - March 28, 2007

    There are hybrid electrics available to the public at ZAP.com. Has limitations but definitely an interesting site to check out.

  9. CZ - March 29, 2007

    Read this first “Clearing California’s Coal Shadow from the American West” and then my note below.

    Read also “Clean Energy, a Strong Economy and Healthy Environment” commissioned by the Western Governor’s Assn and released last summer.

    Renewable Energy generation is still in it’s geologic infancy and not yet reliable and fully transmittable from its remote places of generation.

    Given that, and the coming energy debt described in most reports, I wonder if it is a good idea to continue down the electric car route (plug in or othewise connected to “the grid”). Getting power from the grid means more coal or nuclear plants will have to be built to power the cars…

    Now solar panels (thin film) on the skin of cars…now maybe that has some traction.

    I am a card carryin member of Terra Pass…have my business travel, home and two cars, and daughter’s dorm room offset for now and will for the foreseeable future.

    I am very into funding the development and proving out of renewable technologies, but let’s keep DOWNSTREAM and the whole cycle in mind as we press ahead.

    Very sincerely and optimistic that we’ll engineer clean solutions, Chris

  10. CZ - March 29, 2007

    Not that the hybrid-plug in thing is bad. I guess I just wanted to rant about the other issues.

    Thanks for listening!