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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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