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Project aims to make electric plug-in cars a reality

April 6, 2009

Imagine hundreds, even thousands, of electric cars whirring down local interstates and into parking garages. There, commuters plug them into recharging outlets until the evening drive home.

Such has been the lofty but, so far, impractical dream of environmentalists the likes of actor-turned-outspoken greenie Ed Begley Jr. Or, of the world promised by General Motors Corp.'s electric car Volt, which theoretically is due out next year.

But a partnership of electric utilities and technology companies is intent on making Indianapolis the first city in the nation to test plug-in electrics on a mass scale, perhaps starting later this year.

Project Plug-IN, as it is being called, plans to develop infrastructure for plugin hybrids. That involves everything from 240-volt recharging stations at work and at home to finding a way to bill motorists.

The goal is to have at least 100 plug-in vehicles running locally by next year.

The program is being developed by the Energy Systems Network, a clean-energy initiative launched April 1 by the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, an economic development group.

Partners in the project include Duke Energy Corp. and Indianapolis Power & Light, which would deploy so-called smart grids that would manage recharging. The grids would more easily allow utilities and customers to run energy-hogging appliances during off-peak hours, when prices are cheaper.

"I've come to believe plug-in hybrids are a key to the future," said Jim Rogers, chairman and CEO of Charlotte-based Duke Energy and the largest electric utility in Indiana. "[Project Plug-IN] will accelerate the development of the smart grid."

Never mind for now that there are not yet any practical plug-in hybrids sold commercially. Project Plug-IN aims to convert gasoline-electric hybrids to operate as plug-ins until then.

"We truly believe this can support an all-electric commute," said Paul Mitchell, president of Energy Systems Network.

What better place for such a project than central Indiana, Mitchell said, with its relatively short commute times, minimal mass transit, air-quality-attainment challenges and tremendous technical resources.

Among those assets is the former electric-car brain trust of General Motors Corp.'s canceled EV1 electric car program, now dispersed at such companies as Indianapolis lithium-ion battery maker EnerDel Inc. or at rival Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. in Anderson.

Or there's the work being done at Anderson-based Bright Automotive Inc., led by former GM electric-car battery-pack designer John Waters, who is developing an electric truck.

"This is the first such project I'm aware of having a goal of solving specific problems as opposed to [just] getting government money," said Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of New York-based Ener1, the parent of EnerDel.

Gassenheimer's EnerDel provided batteries to Norway-based Think Global, which has sold thousands of electric cars in Europe but now is in bankruptcy. "We think the United States is three to five years behind Europe in this area," he said.

Also on board as a partner in ESN is electronics company Delphi, in Kokomo, which makes a number of power-controlled devices useful in vehicles and for home energy power management.

Currently, most of the gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius use less capable nickel-metal-hydride batteries. The more advanced lithium-ion variety have tremendous potential as evidenced in the Tesla Roadster, made by California-based Tesla Motors. The company claims the 2,735-pound two-seater can go 220 miles on a charge. The downside is that it costs $109,000.

Mitchell wants to involve automakers and automotive suppliers to help convert hybrid electric cars to plug-in use. That work is already under way by the IUPUI School of Engineering and Technology at the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy. Researchers put lithium-ion batteries aboard a pair of Prius hybrids, with the goal of going well over 40 miles on a plug-in charge.

One of the challenges will be to ensure that the plug-ins are safe, Mitchell said. Nobody wants lithium-ion's sometimes explosive reputation to do to plug-ins what the Hindenburg did for airships.

The pilot program will take on another technical challenge—how to bill motorists for a charge. Project Plug-IN partner IBM Corp. will look at developing a transaction system such as paying by credit card. Having Duke and IPL in the same metro area provides an opportunity to work out another billing scenario. Might a Fishers resident—in Duke's service territory—recharge his plug-in in IPL's Indianapolis service territory and have that bill put on his Duke electric bill?

But this ecosystem for plug-ins is even more involved. Mitchell sees homes and parking garages with recharging stations getting part of their power from rooftop-mounted photovoltaic cells.

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