Driving on the Cutting Edge
John Freitag, AIEC Vice President of Operations, talks to Monroe County Electric Cooperative members John Rule and Patty Tinoco about the pros and cons of the Toyota plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) the Illinois electric cooperatives have tested as part of national research study. With an extra battery pack the car is capable of achieving 100-plus miles per gallon, but only when it’s used in a typical in-town commuter application.
For the past year, the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives and Prairie Power Inc have been part of a national collaboration testing plug-in hybrid technology. In October 2008 we installed a 5.5 kilowatt-hour battery in the AIEC’s 2007 Toyota Prius. Since then, the car has been part of a national study coordinated by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s Cooperative Research Network (CRN).
The Prius now has two hybrid batteries, in addition to the normal 12-volt battery that starts the car. The stock hybrid battery that came with the car is a nickel cadium battery that is recharged through the car’s regenerative charging system. The second, or add-on battery, is much larger and can be recharged only by plugging in the vehicle to a 120-volt outlet.
So after a year of operation, what’s been learned with this plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)?
John Freitag, AIEC Vice President of Operations, who has coordinated the project, says the vehicle is fully capable of achieving 100-plus miles per gallon if and when it’s used in a typical commuter application.
“If you drive it the right way, it’s almost downright hard to put gasoline in the car,” he noted. “It’s almost kind of embarrassing and foolish to fuel up the car at the gas station and only be able to put in $3.50 worth of fuel after a couple weeks of operation,” he said.
Freitag drove the vehicle exclusively during October of 2008, in its first month as a PHEV. He achieved well over 100-mpg during that time, logging about 800 miles – much of it at relatively low speeds in town.
Jefferson, Ga.-based Jackson Electric Membership Corporation put 103,000 miles on a converted hybrid vehicle as part of a two-year study being conducted by the Cooperative Research Network. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory and seven electric co-ops across the country have joined the research project.
“This is what the vehicle is designed for,” he said. “I learned that it can be done. These vehicles can achieve outstanding fuel mileage, but three things are necessary for that to occur. First, the car must be plugged in consistently. The vehicle will operate for about 40 miles in electric mode, but when the battery gets depleted, it’ll operate as a normal Toyota Prius and the fuel mileage will be that of a normal Prius. So the car must be plugged in. Second, the driver must operate the car reasonably. Flooring the accelerator in any vehicle will result in poor fuel mileage and this is especially true in the Prius PHEV. Lastly, for optimal fuel mileage, the car should be used in a typical “commuter” application. The PHEV is ideally suited for typical city driving – stop and go, speeds under 40 miles an hour, etc. The add-on plug-in battery improves highway mileage, but to a much lower extent than in town.”
Freitag said the cooperatives have also learned that PHEV mileage suffers greatly when the weather turns cold.
“In addition to our experience with the Prius PHEV, my personal vehicle is a regular hybrid car, so I’ve done a fair amount of driving with hybrid vehicles,” Freitag noted.
He said hybrids are best suited for the spring and fall months when the weather is moderate. In the winter during periods of extreme cold the batteries need to be warmed by the car’s engine. So the gas engine runs more and fuel mileage decreases.
“In my own personal car, the gas engine runs right away when I hit the power button at home in the morning. About the time I get to the office, the car is good and warm and the hybrid system is just about ready to really start performing — and I have arrived and turn the car off — only to cool off during the colder outside temperatures. When I’m ready to go home, the same process starts all over again.”
Even the Prius PHEV, with its two-hybrid battery system, suffers during the cold weather. Freitag noted that mileage with the car was “downright miserable” last January during the extremely cold weather.
Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are just not designed for temperature extremes. In the summer, the vehicles operate nicely during very warm weather — however, when the car’s air conditioning is turned on, the electric demand on the vehicle is greatly increased — leading to the car engine starting very quickly and running much more. Then the fuel mileage also suffers.
The co-ops have also learned that recharging the plug-in battery is a snap – and that it’s extremely economical. If the Prius PHEV’s plug-in battery is completely discharged (and it usually isn’t) the recharge should take about five hours. A full recharge would typically take about about 50 cents’ worth of electricity or less. Assuming a full recharge once per day, the plug-in electric operation would cost
the typical consumer less than
$15 per month.
So, is it worth it in the long run?
Freitag said the technology is difficult to cost-justify right now. “It would take a very, very long time to pay back our investment through fuel savings,” he said. But as the price of hybrid vehicles continues to come down and gasoline prices go up, these cars can pay for themselves.”
And it might not be too much longer before PHEVs are commonplace on the highways instead of being a once-in-awhile curiousity. All the major automakers are working on battery technology and they’re coming out with hybrids and new plug-in hybrid cars. When people can buy a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle right off the dealer’s lot, the prices are sure to be a lot more affordable — and we’ll see many more of these cars zooming up and down the road — quietly.