September 2008

GM joins forces with scads of utilities

Three dozen electric utilities and General Motors Corp. agreed to collaborate on smoothing a path for a plug-in electric vehicle.

The auto giant's Chevy Volt is due in 2010. It is a plug-in car that will run primarily on electricity with gasoline providing an auxiliary fuel.

The Wall Street Journal reported the collaboration is the first major effort by the two industries on an electric vehicle and includes some of the biggest names in the power sector, so far spanning utilities that operate in nearly 40 states.

Both industries have a lot riding on the success of plug-in cars that will run largely on electricity, with gasoline or other fuels filling a supplementary role.

Automakers need a hot-selling product to revive sales and hope the technology will slash gasoline consumption and reduce reliance on imported oil.

GM plans to introduce the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue as its first models. Other automakers, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co., are working on versions of plug-in cars.

GM first started courting utilities and other energy-related companies last year, knowing it needs the cooperation of several players, including battery makers, to produce plug-in vehicles that function as well as conventional cars and trucks.

"GM is introducing production cars that have to work in all 50 states and Canada," said Mark Duvall, program manager for electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry research group participating in the collaboration. "But every electric system is a little bit different, so there are a lot of little issues to work out."

At the most basic level, embedded intelligence in the cars in the form of computer chips and software needs to meet with equal intelligence on the utility side. That way, a car that plugs into a garage electric outlet will register as a car at the utility and recharge when it is best for the electric system and, perhaps, at a price that will be lower for cars than other appliances.

What utilities do not want is for cars to recharge during hot summer afternoons, when they could push wholesale electricity prices into a more expensive tier.

Off-peak recharging actually could make the electric system more efficient by slightly increasing production at power plants with capacity to spare. Research shows there is enough excess electrical capacity at night to recharge tens of millions of vehicles.

Intelligence in the systems is important for another reason. Congress is considering climate-change legislation that would set a price on carbon-dioxide emissions. Utilities might get special consideration if they can prove their electricity is replacing gasoline and cutting overall emissions.

As utilities begin to confront the integration issues, they also are considering how much they want to encourage deployment. Austin Energy, a city-owned utility that serves the Texas capital, has decided to offer a $1,000 incentive to people who buy plug-in cars.

Electric-industry research shows electrifying transportation cuts emissions even if electricity is from a coal burning plant. That is because power plants burn coal more efficiently than the internal-combustion engine consumes gasoline.

Nicholas Sheble (nsheble@isa.org) writes and edits Automation Update.