Vermont electric grid ready to power the car of tomorrow (Burlington Free Press)

By Candace Page

Vermont's electricity system can handle the plug-in hybrid automobile revolution -- good news for drivers waiting for climate-friendly, cheaper-to-fuel cars, a research team said Tuesday.

Now all that's needed is the cars themselves. And if drivers are looking for a Ford, the wait could be a long one, a Ford Motor Co. executive told a University of Vermont conference on plug-in hybrids.

"These are not trivial changes. It's not as simple as saying, 'Put in a bigger battery,'" Nancy Gioia, director of Ford's hybrid vehicle program, told the audience. She said it will be 2020, or later, before even 1 percent of new cars sold each year are plug-in hybrids.

Plug-in hybrids are cars powered by a combination of gasoline and electric batteries that can be recharged by plugging them into a standard 110-volt household outlet.

They are an advance over today's hybrids because they rely more on battery power and less on gasoline than standard hybrids like the Toyota Prius, which uses the car's engine and brakes to recharge the battery.

In the distant future, speakers told the conference, plug-in hybrids could do more than provide a ride to work, school and the grocery store.

Collectively, all those plug-in hybrids sitting in driveways across the state could act as a reservoir of stored electricity. If the power went out in a storm, householders might be able to draw power from their cars to keep the lights on.

"You buy a car and you've bought a power plant for your home," said Steven Letendre, an associate professor of environmental studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney, cautioning that this advance is likely decades away.

Ford -- and all of the major car companies -- are working on more mundane versions of plug-in hybrid technology.

They face major technological challenges, Gioia said, that range from the need for breakthroughs in battery technology to figuring out how to defrost the windshield when the car is operating on battery power.
Reduced fuel use, pollution

Tuesday's conference, "The Future of Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles," was called to unveil the results of research by Letendre and a team from UVM's Transportation Center.

They wanted to find out whether Vermont's utilities could handle increased electric demand if thousands of drivers purchased plug-in hybrids. They also developed preliminary estimates of the fuel and carbon emissions savings from the hybrids.

Among their findings:

Vermont's electric utilities could recharge 50,000 hybrids every day without exceeding their capacity, assuming that car owners are free to recharge cars any time during the day.

If customers are given a financial incentive to recharge cars late at night, when other demands for electricity are low, utilities could handle 100,000 cars plugged in simultaneously.

At off-peak electric rates, it would cost a Vermont driver less than $1 to buy electricity that would deliver as many miles of travel as a gallon of gasoline (now selling for $3 a gallon). Fuel savings would be balanced, in part, by the extra $2,500 to $5,000 it would cost to buy a plug-in hybrid.

If 50,000 Vermonters drove plug-in hybrids, they would collectively save 11.39 million gallons of gasoline a year, according to an analysis by Mike Cross, a post-doctoral fellow in engineering at UVM.

Emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, by those cars would drop to one-quarter of its current level, even taking into account the carbon dioxide emitted by the power plants that feed the New England grid.
Demand is here

In addition to helping consumers' wallets and the planet's health, widespread use of plug-in hybrids could help the state's electric ratepayers.

Utilities would be selling more electricity without building costly new plants, one member of the audience noted, thus perhaps reducing electric rates for all consumers.

Gioia and others emphasized that plug-in hybrids aren't the silver-bullet solution to cleaner transportation. Car companies are working on other technologies and making changes -- using lighter materials to reduce cars' weight, for example -- in automobile designs to reduce fuel consumption.

Tom Buckley, customer and energy services manager at Burlington Electric Department, said he hoped the auto industry would focus on getting plug-in hybrids to market as quickly as possible.

"We all have 110-volt plugs. Consumer demand for plug-in hybrids is here now," he told the conference.