Austin Strikes Up The Band for Plug-In Hybrids
By Bill Moore
There's "trouble" brewing in Texas and it isn't the Travis County grand jury investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
This particular dust-up started in that dad-gum, left-leaning, "blueberry in the ketchup" city of Austin, which also happens to be the state capitol, where the power company is a public utility called – what else? -- Austin Energy. (I want so much to call it Austin Power!) It seems the city fathers recently decided to officially endorse the idea of plug-in hybrids.
Now, before we start talking to one of the chief instigators, Austin Energy's Roger Duncan, let me explain the difference between a normal gasoline-electric hybrid and an "Electric [plug-in] Hybrid", or what is sometimes referred to as a grid-connected hybrid or as they like to call it in Austin, a gas-optional hybrid. Myself, I am partial to "Electric Hybrid" 'cause it puts the focus on the electric part more than the gasoline part.
A plug-in or "Electric Hybrid" lets you choose which fuel you want to use, either electricity or gasoline and its biofuel substitutes like ethanol. Is that really possible, you may ask?
Darn tooting! And some folks out in the 'Terminator' state of California -- wouldn't you know it -- are tinkering with the batteries and hacking the computer code of on a couple of them fancy Toyota Priuses, but that's another couple of stories. (See: EV World's new segment: Electric [Plug-In] Hybrids for links.)
Clearing Up The Confusion
Several weeks ago, a newspaper story appeared that reported the City of Austin was prepared to offer substantial rebates for purchases of plug-in hybrids. EV World linked to and archived the story, which very quickly precipitated a hasty email from a reader at Austin Energy who asked us to remove the link because the story was not factually correct. We immediately responded, but the first question I wanted to ask Roger Duncan was what were the facts.
"Austin Energy is a public utility, and our mayor and city council... agreed that we wanted to put together an incentive package for plug-in hybrids. As part of that package, Austin Energy will pull together a package of rebates for the first plug-in hybrids that come into our service area. We have not determined the level of rebates or how many there would be.
"I gave an example during a talk recently that, for example, we may give a $1000 to each owner of a new plug-in hybrid for the first thousand vehicles that came into our service area; and that would be a $1 million set aside. That, unfortunately, was printed as fact, when I was using it as an example. But we have determined that we will be giving rebates in the future. We just have not yet determined the amount or the date", Duncan explained.
Goal to Be Clean Energy Capital of the World
Austin Energy is the tenth largest public power utility in the United States. Overseen by the major and city council who sit on the utility board of directors, Austin Energy generates nearly all of its own electric power, nearly equally divided in thirds between coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
"We also sell a lot of renewable energy", he pointed out to me. "In fact, the last three years we have sold more renewable energy than any other utility in the country. Primarily, it's wind from west Texas that we transmit in. We have also been a very aggressive energy efficiency, energy conservation company for many years and are generally recognized in the field as a progressive utility".
While returning home from the Fuel Cell Forum in San Antonio last November, my wife and I drove past many of those wind turbines. Duncan said that Austin now purchases some 200 megawatts of power from those very same wind farms, as part of its goal to be known as the "Clean Energy Capital of the World".
It's that ambitious goal that eventually led to the mayor and city council endorsing the plug-in hybrid concept.
"The mayor and council asked us what else we could do to really ramp it up", Duncan said.
"After looking at things, I came back and told council that we would continue to expand our renewables and conservation, but that we really were not doing anything in the transportation area more so than any other city, in my opinion. As we began to look into it further, I also told council that I thought that eventually there would be a unification of the transportation and electric sectors for a variety of reasons.
"So, the council passed a resolution July of last year (2004) asking us to look into unification of the transportation and electric sectors, and its impact on Austin Energy. And when we got into that, we became very excited over plug-in hybrids... We came back and told the council that we thought that the hybrids that are on the roads today were sort of the first step towards unifying with the electric sector, but plug-in hybrids would provide a cheaper cost for our customers, extra revenue for the utility, cleaner air for our city; and that eventually we thought that this was the way that the transportation sector had to go".
Interestingly, despite Texas' reputation as the world center for the oil and gas industry, Duncan observed that the state has more renewable energy resources from wind, solar and biomass than it has in its remaining fossil fuel reserves.
Austin Energy's Vision of the Wind-Powered FFPHEV
Okay, I know that's a mouthful of an acronym. It stands for "Flexible Fuel Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle". This is Austin Energy's dream machine -- and that of an increasing number of influential Washington, D.C. policy makers.
"By that we mean a vehicle that has a flexible fuel internal combustion engine that can burn either gasoline or E85 or other mixes and has the capability of being plugged into the electric grid to charge the battery. It's pretty much that simple," he explained. "We're not getting into detailed specs on the size of the battery or electric drive... We just want the basic concept that you can plug it in any electric grid and at the same time, you can drive it off an internal combustion engine and have that flexibility.
"The advantages that we saw were several", Duncan continued. "First, when we did calculations on the cost to our consumers if they were able to plug in a vehicle overnight, we found that they would get... the equivalent of about 56 cents a gallon of gasoline for driving in an all-electric operating range. So, that got us very excited".
"Then we looked at the emission characteristics and we recognized that as I mentioned earlier, we sell a lot of green power and our wind comes in primarily at night as opposed to a hot summer afternoon, which is Austin's peak loads. So, we were excited about the prospect that we could take in even more wind at night for our night-time base loads and charge the vehicles and essentially have wind-powered cars".
Duncan explained that shifting to plug-in hybrids offered the opportunity to also replace downtown auto exhaust emissions, where the city has difficulty meeting federal ozone standards with remote power plant smokestacks, whose emissions the utility could better control. And in the case of power generated by wind, solar and nuclear, there would be no emissions.
"We even did some preliminary calculations on our coal plant and we're optimistic that when others do the calculation there may even be some total emission offsets even from coal, if it's properly done".
What would Duncan like to see in the way of electric-only range in an electric plug-in hybrid? He responded that he thought a 40 mile electric-only range would be adequate to meet most Austin residents' driving needs. He also conceded that the concept of plugging in a hybrid car is really so new that most people in his community are still just getting familiar with the notion of gasoline-electric hybrids.
Plug-In Vs. Plug-Free Hybrids
As you might expect, Duncan is cognizant of the dilemma plug-in hybrids present for carmakers like Ford, Honda and Toyota/Lexus, who have spent significant time, money and public relations efforts to convince buyers that they don't need to plug in their hybrids.
"That's certainly a problem, and what we're trying to tell people is that... it's true you don't have to plug in the hybrid's you've got now, but you also don't have the option of plugging it in. We've started calling them 'gas-optional hybrids' here versus plug-in. When we say a gas-optional hybrid... people's faces light up a little bit."
He went on to say that he likes to tell people that they can still drive from Austin to San Antonio and that they don't have the limitations of battery-only electric cars, but they also have the option of cheaper driving and cleaner air if they do plug it in.
"Certainly the term 'plug-in' is an issue and I don't know the solution yet, but for the time being, we're starting to talk about gas-optional hybrids".
Energy Impact of Plug-In Hybrids
I asked Duncan what impact, if any, the eventual introduction of flexible fuel plug-in hybrids are likely to have on the local power grid; at what point does Austin Energy need to begin to add generating capacity and where will that power come from?
"The initial impact of plug-ins into the electric grid system is not going to have much impact because almost all utilities have unused capacity siting at night," he replied, noting that other utilities, spearheaded by the Electric Power Research Institute have examined this issue closely.
"Initially, we don't see any capacity additions. Obviously, if there's significant penetration of the market with plug-ins, there will have to be power plant additions", he remarked, conceding that if and when that does happen, the utility will probably look at 'clean coal' if energy conservation and renewable energy alone can't cover the added load.
"I think the reality is, you're just adding electric load and it's going to vary on a regional basis as to what the power plants and utilities do to add the load".
Duncan estimated for me that a typical Austin ratepayer would see his electric bill increase by between $10 and $15 a month to charge a plug-in hybrid, as opposed to $80 or more a month in gasoline purchases, assuming the person spends $1000 a year on gasoline.
Vehicle-to-Grid Hybrids in the Future
Duncan said that he has also looked at the concept of vehicle-to-grid or V2G in which the passage of energy is bi-directional. A plug-in hybrid can accept charges from the grid, but can't share its stored energy with the home or the larger power grid. A V2G hybrid has built in circuitry and controls that permit the grid to pull some power out of the vehicle's battery or fuel cell to help during peak demand periods. The concept is worth more investigation in his view, but is also too immature to be considered seriously right now, unlike plug-ins hybrids.
Firing Up Carmakers
It seems that nearly everyone in the know but carmakers are excited about the potential of plug-in hybrids. So, how do we bring them on board, I asked?
"Our approach is to simply is to create the market. The approach that we're taking here in Austin is that we want to demonstrate to carmakers that there are customers that want to buy them, in fact, there's a utility that wants to put up rebates. We want to then replicate that in the largest fifty cities in the United States".
Duncan sees utilities in those communities following Austin's lead in working with local government, industry, business and consumers to explain the benefits of the concept and stimulate demand for it. The goal is to have hundreds of thousands of people nationwide expressing interest in plug-in hybrids, as well as millions of dollars in utility rebates.
"At that point, I think that the automakers will see that there is a definite market there and will produce the automobiles".