One Month With Our Plug-In Prius

By Bill Moore

Posted: 06 Nov 2009

The following was submitted to the Omaha World-Herald for possible publication on their editorial page

One month ago, with the generous support of San Diego-based Plug-In Conversions Corporation and Omaha's own Metropolitan Community College, my wife and I became the proud owners of a plug-in Prius that consistently gets more than 100 mpg.  To our knowledge, ours the first privately owned plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in Omaha and possibly in the state. OPPD owns two similar Priuses.  The Omaha World-Herald kindly covered the conversion at Metro on the front page of the October 9th Business section.

Now that we've had a chance to drive LIVN GRN, the car's Nebraska vanity plate, for a month, I wanted to share with your readers what we've learned to date about operating the forerunner of a car of the future.  

Our 2009 Prius came to us by an unusual route. Sometime this past summer the original owner was involved in a collision in Texas.  The front of the car was smashed and the insurance company sold it as salvage to Steve Woodruff in southern Indiana, who has a nice niche business buying damaged Priuses and restoring them.  Our car had just 3,405 miles on; and still had its "new car" smell.  

We bought the car after numerous emails and progress photos; flying to Louisville, Kentucky to drive it home.  It replaced our 14-year-old Honda Accord.  Our plan was to eventually convert it to a plug-in at some point in the future, though not immediately, given the $13,500 price tag of the kit (you don't do this to save money).  This changed when Kim Adelman, the owner of PICC and a long-time friend, offered to provide us with a kit for testing and demonstration purposes. In exchange, my online publication, EVWorld.Com, would provide Adelman's business with free advertising.  The conversion took two days, and wasn't without its moments of drama, which I recount on our web site.  

Our first inkling of the potential of the conversion came when I drove Adelman and his chief technician back to Eppley for their flight home to California. The Prius's mileage display showed 99.9 mpg driving down I-80. That's the highest the Prius can display. Adelman calculated it was probably closer to 130 mpg since we were running in largely electric-only mode for the 18 mile trip from Papillion.  The return leg was in conventional hybrid mode, but the car still averaged better than 70 mpg.

Today, my wife drives the car daily to work at Omaha Steaks, a commute of 11 miles round-trip.  When she doesn't have to turn on the car's defroster or heating system, she consistently sees 99.9 mpg. Even with the defrost and heater running, the poorest the car has achieved is 67.5 mpg; and most of the time of late she sees better than 90 mpg.

In order to not charge the car during peak daytime electric loads, we only plug in the car after 11 pm, when we go to bed, and unplug it first thing in the morning.  At maximum battery discharge it takes only 6 hours to recharge the 6.1kWh battery pack to a full charge.  The typical 11 mile trip consumes about 2.4kWh of electricity or the equivalent of just under 17¢ worth of electricity. The car uses very little gasoline, just enough to warm up the catalytic converter and occasionally provide a little extra power when climbing a hill. 

Critics of plug-in electric vehicles contend that running your car on electricity, especially in states like Nebraska, which relies heavily on coal, isn't any better environmentally than using gasoline, especially in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.  I strongly disagree.  I asked OPPD the percentage of overnight, or what's called base load power, that comes from the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant, which produces no CO2, and its two coal-fired central plants.  Annually, they inform me, it works out to be 50% for each. A quick bit of math tells you that the 2.4kWh of electricity we use to run the car on a daily basis results in just over 2 lbs of CO2 a day. A conventional Prius would produce over 5 lbs. and a non-hybrid car getting 22 mpg in city driving would generate 11 lbs. for the very same 11 mile commute.

But our car is essentially carbon-free. We voluntarily contribute $15 a month to OPPD's green energy fund, an amount that OPPD's Gary Williams tells me is equivalent to 500kWh of carbon-free renewable energy the utility buys on our behalf.  Even at 3kWh a day to recharge the car means we're only using 90kWh of the 500.  The rest offsets our home electricity use.

Now, the experiment hasn't been without its "hiccups."  PICC and I are still wrestling with an occasionally error code, nothing serious and one I can probably resolve by bleeding what we suspect is an air bubble in the inverter cooling system. Apart from that and adjusting our bed-time schedule to let out the family dog and plug-in the car, LIVN GRN has been an exciting addition to our lives.  Now my wife comes home at night, nonplused that she only gets 90.7 mpg.

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