Plug 'n Play

Austin Energy's plug-in hybrid campaign has already won the endorsement of dozens of cities and towns, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, as well as Austin itself, and also more than 100 utility companies.

Published: 27-Jan-2006

"FORGET hydrogen. Forget hydrogen. Forget hydrogen!” That was the rallying cry of Jim Woolsey, a former director of America's Central Intelligence Agency, at an energy-technology event this week in Washington, DC. He was referring to the idea that America might make itself less dependent on foreign oil by encouraging the development of hydrogen-powered cars. Instead, the former spy-chief has joined a curious coalition of environmental activists, national-security hawks, clean-energy experts and politicians to unveil a national consumer campaign in favour of “plug-in” hybrid-electric vehicles. Another surprising supporter of plug-ins, Orrin Hatch, a senator from Utah and a conservative Republican not known for supporting green causes, also dropped by to declare that this obscure technology could be the “silver bullet” America needs to end its addiction to oil.

The event, and the campaign it was designed to support, are the brainchildren of Austin Energy, a power-generating utility owned by the city of Austin, Texas. Austin Energy's campaign has already won the endorsement of dozens of cities and towns, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, as well as Austin itself, and also more than 100 utility companies. It now plans to collect millions of signatures from individuals requesting that big car firms start making plug-in hybrids.

Plug-in technology itself is a modified version of hybrid-electric cars such as the Toyota Prius. Instead of relying solely on energy from a petrol engine to charge them up, plug-in hybrids can, as their name suggests, be plugged into conventional power sockets. That allows a plug-in to travel 30-50 miles (50-80km) without petrol, rather than just a couple of miles, as with the Prius. Since most American motorists travel only 20-30 miles a day, they could drive in all-electric mode most of the time. This has the potential to lift fuel economy from the pitiful 20 miles per gallon common in American cars to 80mpg or more. But, as in a conventional hybrid, once the battery was drained, the petrol engine would kick in—thus ensuring that the driver was never stranded.

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