Plug-in hybrid is next step to all-electric car

Posted on June 16, 2008

Some form of electric car could be the answer to high gasoline prices and America's dependence on imported oil, but a wave of new plug-in hybrids might be the best choice, at least until battery technology improves, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander says. Hybrids use a combination of battery-operated electric motors and gasoline engines, and plug-in hybrids are models whose onboard battery packs can be recharged overnight by plugging them into ordinary home power outlets. To explore the use of plug-in hybrids and electric cars — and help the Tennessee Valley Authority make use of excess nighttime power-generation capacity — the TVA Congressional Caucus is hosting a forum at the Tennessee Capitol today. The forum — titled "Are plug in electric cars and trucks an answer to high gasoline prices?" — begins at 9:30 a.m. with a display of several plug-in hybrids and other hybrid vehicles in the Legislative Plaza on Sixth Avenue. Following that are presentations in Senate Hearing Room 12 inside the Capitol from 10:15 a.m. to noon. Besides Alexander, those speaking at the forum will include TVA Chairman William Sansom; U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala.; Jonathan J. Lauckner, General Motors Corp.'s vice president for global program management; Jack Sayed, electric-vehicle director for Nissan North America; and Bob Wimmer, national manager of technical and regulatory affairs for Toyota Motor North America. "Every indication is that these plug-in hybrids could be a very promising solution to a very tough problem," Alexander said in a telephone interview. One of the vehicles on display will be a modified Toyota Prius hybrid "with a larger battery and a cord that plugs into a wall socket," he said. It can be charged overnight for 60 cents' worth of electricity, and go from a "40-miles-per-gallon vehicle to a 100-miles-per-gallon vehicle," Alexander said. "Over 1 million Priuses on the road now could be converted," he said. Toyota plans to begin building new Prius models with the plug-in technology for fleet use by 2010. Recharging at night when most people are asleep would help TVA make use of any excess electric-power generating capacity, Alexander said. "TVA has the equivalent of seven or eight nuclear power plants unused every night, a huge amount of electricity." Although it currently costs about $10,000 to convert a vehicle such as the Prius to make it a plug-in hybrid, "That price will come down with increased production," Alexander said. But the day when Americans will be able to rely on electric power alone to propel their everyday vehicles is still well in the future, he said. "The big obstacle is the battery," Alexander said, noting that today's technology can power a vehicle only for about 30 to 40 miles before recharging is needed. Hydrogen fuel cells, which use hydrogen gas to generate electricity to power cars, are on the horizon, Alexander said. "But getting the wrinkles out will take a couple of decades." The advantage of plug-in hybrids, he said, is that "from the driver's point of view, it doesn't change much of anything to put a cord on your Prius."