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Illinois Country Living

Driving on the Cutting Edge
Electric co-ops giving a real-world test to plug-in cars

By John Lowrey

Toyota Prius by Wind Turbine

“Many times you will get the energy from wind turbines off peak at night. That battery in the car could store the wind energy. It could all work together.”

Imagine driving a car that gets the equivalent of 100 or even 150 miles per gallon (mpg), one that is pollution free and costs just 2 cents a mile to drive. Sound good? Well, you could be driving one in just a few years. It will be a car you plug in instead of gassing up. Illinois’ electric co-ops, and others across the nation, are participating in a shakedown cruise to see just how electric cars will work in the real world.

The Cooperative Research Network (CRN), an arm of Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), has been conducting a project involving these cars, called plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), for the past 20 months. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory and seven electric co-ops across the country have joined the effort, with a plan for 10 cars to hit the road by the end of this year. One of those cars is owned by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) in Springfield. The Toyota Prius had a new lithium ion battery pack added in October, which was funded by Prairie Power, Inc., a generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative serving 11 distribution co-ops in Illinois and headquartered in Jacksonville.

“We think it’s the right thing to do,” says Bob Harbour, President and CEO of Prairie Power. “It will be good for the environment and reduce tailpipe emissions. And it will be good for improving our load factor by increasing off-peak sales.”

Prairie Power is also investing in a new 30-megawatt (MW) wind farm near Pittsfield. Harbour says the two ideas could work well together. The key is that the cars must be charged at night and off peak.

“Many times you will get the energy from wind turbines off peak at night. That battery in the car could store the wind energy. It could all work together,” Harbour says.

Chevy Volt

General Motors plans to market the Chevrolet Volt by late 2010, although some say it will be 2011. GM estimates that the Volt will be less expensive to recharge than purchasing a cup of your favorite coffee. More than 220 lithium-ion cells will power the Volt’s electric-drive unit delivering the equivalent of 150 horsepower, 273 lb-ft. of instant torque, and a top speed of 100 miles per hour.

He also adds that there are many problems left to work out, and that’s the reason for being involved in this real-world research. The main problem area is battery technology. He says, “There are still significant problems with battery technology, not just the cost, but disposal and recycling too. All these issues need to be worked on.”

“Part of the program is gaining real world data on what it’s like to drive one of these vehicles day to day, and part of it is public outreach,” says Alan Shedd, who logged 45,000 miles in a plug-in as a Commercial-Industrial Marketing Engineer at Jackson Electric Membership Corporation in Jefferson, Ga. Shedd picked up the co-op’s PHEV, a retrofitted 2004 Toyota Prius from a conversion shop outside Los Angeles in February 2007.

Today’s hybrid cars, like the Prius, achieve greater fuel efficiency by adding an electric motor and a 1.3-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery pack that takes over for the gasoline engine at low speeds. The gas engine kicks on during long cruises or when the battery gets used up. Both the gas engine and a regenerative braking system constantly recharge the battery pack.

Plug-in hybrids, though, take the idea a step further by replacing the nickel-metal hydride battery with a 9-kWh lithium-ion model – a much larger version of those used in cell phones and laptops – that delivers more electric power and better fuel economy.

When the battery runs down to where a one-third charge remains, the PHEV starts acting like a regular hybrid, using the gasoline engine to maintain that level. But the engine and brakes don’t recharge the battery much further. Instead, a full charge requires a regular 110-V outlet.

Before being converted to a plug-in, Shedd’s off-the-shelf hybrid averaged 45 to 50 mpg. He now gets 75 to 90 mpg driving the same routes. On trips in-town of less than 20 miles, the car can average between 120 and 150 mpg.

Plug-In Prius

Alan Shedd plugs his PHEV in at home and monitors how much electricity it draws with a small voltmeter. In recharging, the car uses less energy than a hairdryer. Source: Jackson EMC

“When plugged in, a PHEV can recharge in four hours,” says Ed Torrero, CRN executive director. “Doing so consumes around 4 kWh, or about 40 cents, of electricity. It’s cheaper to fully recharge the battery this way than charging it with the gasoline engine.”

A PHEV can run on the equivalent of $1 per gallon for gas – a price not seen in this country since February 1999. “The downside is, the batteries are going to cost about $10,000 right now and the payback is pretty long,” says Bob Gibson, Senior Program Manager for CRN. “The goal is to cut that cost to roughly $5,000 or even $3,000.”

At that price premium, the eventual pocketbook advantages to drivers are obvious. Plug-ins also offer the promise of reduced reliance on imported oil and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Combined, electricity generation and transportation account for close to three-quarters of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, blamed as a principal contributor to climate change.

Even in a scenario where few changes are made to the nation’s current electric generation mix – with coal continuing to provide about half of all power produced – widespread adoption of PHEVs could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 500 million metric tons a year by 2050. That’s equal to permanently taking more than one-third of cars off the nation’s roads.

At the moment, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle development remains hampered by costs and evolving battery technology. Nickel-metal hydride batteries, for their part, are plagued by low-energy density – the charge held relative to size, and lithium-ion batteries, such as those being deployed by CRN, are not yet proven.

Another technical hurdle involves electric utilities’ ability to handle a surge of electric-driven cars. If PHEVs are charged during times of low electricity demand, the current power grid could “fuel” as many as 180 million without the need for new generation, according the U.S. Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. But a rapid and more widespread adoption of the technology could severely strain distribution systems, such as those owned and maintained by your local electric co-op.

AIEC Plug-In Prius

You may see this “plug-in” Toyota Prius at your next co-op annual meeting. Owned by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, Springfield, it is part of a nationwide test of electric cars. The conversion to a plug-in car was funded by Prairie Power, Inc. of Jacksonville. Similar cars in the test have reached 100-mpg levels.

“Plug-in cars have the potential to create the greatest end-use product, and greatest challenge, for electric utilities since air conditioning was introduced in the 1950s,” explains Torrero. “Air conditioning load grew much faster than expected and caught a lot of utilities unprepared. This research project is contributing to an early understanding of the technology so we can avoid any similar unintended consequences.”

“In my opinion, it’s a non-issue,” insists Shedd. “In recharging, the car draws less energy than a hairdryer. And we don’t have brownouts in the morning when everyone is getting ready for work, drying their hair and making coffee.”

Jackson EMC recently retired its PHEV when the odometer reached 103,000 miles, and Shedd has since moved on to work as a Southern regional manager with the NRECA. But wanting to continue his participation with CRN, Shedd “put his money where his mouth is” and bought the car from the co-op.

“I’m a huge fan of the technology — it works very well,” Shedd concludes. “This car and I, we go way back.”

One of the values of the co-ops’ nationwide test is that the cars and batteries will be tested in different terrain and different weather conditions. The co-ops involved in the nationwide test have also formed a user’s group to share ideas.

John Freitag, Vice President of Operations for the AIEC, is a member of the user’s group. He says the group is already learning some of the positives as well as the negatives. One car already had a spectacular fire caused by a very minor battery pack installation error. “This is a trial of new technology and it could fail,” says Freitag.

Batteries, like people, tend to prefer 72-degree weather. One of the cars is being tested by a co-op in North Dakota. Freitag says, “They told us horror stories of bad mileage last winter during -30 degree weather. Mileage also tends to suffer during extremely hot periods when battery performance is less and the AC is on.”

Although some of this sounds negative, Freitag says, “Actually this is an extremely positive development. It’s really exciting and I’m glad that the electric co-ops are being proactive and innovative and helping further development of these new cars.”

Randy Olson, Member Service Representative for Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative in Fairfield, is an electric car enthusiast and has written several articles on the subject. He says as new hybrid-electric vehicles hit the market, like the Chevrolet Volt which could be available in 2011, kWh sales will increase.

“The key will be to educate people to charge their vehicles at night when demand is lower for electricity,” says Olson.

Olson says to watch for new Chinese electric cars in 2009. For example, a four-door sedan called the E6 will cost $35,000 and is being developed by the world’s second largest battery supplier BYD of China. It could hit the U.S. market next year.

Ultimately, to work well together, the electric grid, electric cars and their owners will have to be smart. Many Illinois electric co-ops have already installed a part of that “smart grid” technology with automated meter reading (AMR) technology installed throughout their systems. But more demand management tools and pricing models will need to be developed.

“Early trial data shows people are plugging in the cars on peak, not off peak,” says Gibson. But he adds that the data monitor and software being used in the co-ops’ test project is also being tested for commercial use in new electric cars. “It could communicate between the car and the utility and control the charging process off peak.”

Gibson says there are more practical problems to work out, like where to plug in the car when not at home and how to meter and pay for that off-site charging. “This is all solvable, but we need real world tests to figure out the stumbling blocks. There are always realities that impact new technology.”

But Gibson says like with any new technology early adopters will buy plug-in cars. It was that way for the hybrids like the Toyota Prius, says Gibson. He was one of those early adopters. He bought a Prius in 2002.

“My wife thought I was nuts. Now she loves it too,” he says.

Scott Gates, a writer for the NRECA contributed to this article.

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, Electric Power Research Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, and California Air Resources Board.

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