With Energy Dept. grant, studying electric cars

Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 25, 2007

After attempts by California government in the 1980s and 1990s to set minimum standards for the production of low-emission electric vehicles - which automakers rejected, citing a lack of demand - electric cars disappeared faster than stonewashed jeans.

But with the nation's dependence on fossil fuels growing as limited supplies dwindle, the push to get plug-in hybrid electric vehicles back on the market has come to a shove. The Department of Energy announced yesterday it would grant the University $1 million to fund the research.

The University's grant was part of a $20 million allotment from the Department of Energy, designated for investigating PHEV technology across the country.

Kevin Kolevar, the assistant secretary at the Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, said that while one of the reasons the University was picked for the project is its reputation in social sciences, the main reason is its location near the headquarters of the three largest American automakers.

Numerous studies suggest that if all the cars in the country switched from burning fossil fuels to running on electric power, more than 80 percent of the electricity demand from the vehicles could be met by making use of the idle generation capacity from power companies. This is one reason the Department of Energy is looking into producing these cars.

DTE Energy spokesman John Austerberry said in an interview that it takes DTE 12,000 megawatts of power to generate electricity on the hottest day of summer when demand is greatest but that the company usually produces much less energy on a daily basis. If DTE only needed to produce 7,000 megawatts on a 60 degree day in October, the idle generation capacity that could go to powering PHEVs could be as much as 5,000 megawatts.

Austerberry said electricity demand drops at night - leaving plenty of surplus energy to recharge the batteries of electric cars.

These claims are based on the assumption that there would be a very low initial demand for PHEVs, he said.

Kolevar said he recognizes that there will be a lot of challenges in getting PHEVs on the road, but the benefits are apparent.

Plug-in electric vehicles have the potential to drastically reduce carbon tailpipe emissions, but one concern of implementing this technology is the potential demand for energy it would cause. If the majority of people were plugging PHEVs into the grid, the demand for power could rise so much that more coal and oil-dependent power plants would have to be built, offsetting the environmental benefits.

But the demand for energy is growing at a rapid rate in the United States, and more power plants will be built regardless of whether PHEVs are factored into the equation.

Austerberry said DTE is considering building a second nuclear power plant and Consumer's Energy will likely build another coal plant to meet the energy demands of the future.

As more consumers want to see their power coming from renewable sources, wind and solar energy is starting to become more appealing to electric companies as well.

Austerberry said it would be a combination of all these things that would allow DTE to meet the energy demand.

This is another reason why the "zero-impact" vehicles are looking more attractive.

Kolevar said rising oil prices are driving the administration's interest in PHEVs.

"When gas prices increase, the focus on alternative technologies will increase correspondingly," Kolevar said.

The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute will lead the study, which will be conducted over the next two years. The institute will also allocate portions of the grant to various University departments.

Although the auto industry has been criticized for sabotaging the success of the electric car, Kolevar said the industry is willing to push this technology forward.

The University's Energy Institute and Transportation Institute will work with GM and Ford to explore technological obstacles to the optimal construction and performance of plug-in hybrid vehicles and how to make them affordable for the average consumer.

The Institute for Social Research will help tackle a critical problem with getting this technology on the market by conducting surveys on the attitudes potential customers have concerning PHEVs to see how a hybrid electric vehicle should be crafted so people will buy them.

The Center for the Study of Complex systems will conduct research to develop economic models for the sales and distribution of these vehicles.

Initial findings of the study will be presented at the Detroit Auto Show in January of 2008, and the final results of the study will be published in 2009.

Phoenix Energy Institute spokeswoman Adrienne Losh said the results will detail the concept for the optimized PHEV, an analysis of varying consumer perspectives about PHEVs, multiple economic models for the PHEVs to succeed on the market.