In a sign of accelerating progress on plug-in hybrids — the 100 mpg vehicles you can't yet buy in showrooms — electric utilities quickly are linking with automakers and tech companies to develop "smart-charging" technology that controls when and how fast a vehicle is recharged.
"Smart charging is an essential capability for Duke and all electric utilities as PHEVs enter the market," Duke Energy chief technology officer David Mohler says. "Through this capability, we're able to reduce stress on the grid during peak periods and keep rates low."
As if to make the point that plug-ins no longer are exotic experiments, California clean-air regulators last week required automakers to put 58,333 of them on the state's roads from 2012 through 2014.
Certain that plug-ins are imminent, utilities and others are moving on everyday details for recharging. "People are saying, '(Plug-ins) are more immediate than I expected,' " says David Kaplan, chief technology officer and founder of V2Green, a Seattle company with smart-charging technology. "We've been in this almost two years, which makes us old-timers, and we've seen a sea change."
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have bigger batteries than normal gasoline-electric hybrids and can be recharged from a household outlet. They run on their electric motors more and their gasoline engines less. Prototypes suggest 70 mpg to 120 mpg is possible.
Other plug-ins coming are pure electric cars, such as General Motors' Volt, due in 2010 or 2011.
Developments on thorny questions of when, where and how to recharge, how to pay the bill and dealing with more power demand:
•The Electric Power Research Institute is linking Ford Motor with a group of East Coast utilities that will test ways to recharge Ford's prototype plug-in Escape hybrid.
EPRI says it's in partnership with the automaker on recharging and billing details. Ford also has supplied plug-in Escapes to utility Southern California Edison.
•Duke Power and GridPoint, a vendor of smart-charging programs, reported last week that they charged during off-peak night hours an electric vehicle that was plugged in late in the afternoon.
•V2Green announced a deal to provide technology that allows Idaho National Laboratory to monitor plug-ins it uses. It also is working with utilities in Denver and Austin on managing timing and pace of vehicle charging.
Standardizing charging and payment details might seem basic. But it's as radical as trying to develop gas stations while Karl Benz was inventing the first gasoline-power automobile in the 1880s. Benz ignored refueling, and his son Eugen had to run alongside with a bottle of fuel at the first public demonstration in 1886. His wife, Berta, stopped at pharmacies for cleaning fluid to fuel a 65-mile trip in 1888.
Plug-in backers want to avoid problems and optimize benefits.
For example, shifting recharging to times when a utility has extra capacity and could price lower is key. Otherwise, plugging in thousands of rechargeable cars in the same area at high-demand times could bring power shortages or boost pollution as utilities crank up their oldest plants for peak demand.
Proper timing also could make better use of clean power. "More wind power is produced at night," Kaplan says, and smart-charging software can tell the power grid to charge the car during the windiest hours.
Another aspect of smart charging is billing the right person.
"If I invite you to my house and you want to charge, I'd want it to be on your bill, not mine," says Clay Perry, EPRI spokesman.
"We're currently working with auto companies and our own smart-grid experts on every possible way to manage charging," says Mark Duvall, manager of EPRI's Electric Transportation program. "Telematics systems in vehicles, smart metering at utilities — there are many ways."
Selling power to plug-ins "can be a good business proposition" for utilities, Duvall notes, so nothing is intended to discourage charging.
As envisioned, for example, owners could override smart systems when they need instant charging.
"If a guy comes in and wants to plug in, we want him to plug in. We don't want the hybrid customer to be a second-class customer, but we want to manage the cost," he says. "If I have a Chevy Volt and plug in at peak, and just didn't realize, I'm going to be mad at General Motors, mad at the utility company" when billed for high-priced electricity.
Says Duvall, "There's a joke about two buttons on a car. One says 'Charge now,' and the other says, 'Charge cheap.' "
Contributing: Chris Woodyard