“Electrically powered vehicles are going to provide tremendous benefit and excitement for the customer, while also hastening the move to a more diverse choice of energy alternatives.” -Jon Lauckner, vice president of global programs, General Motors
When I heard about the new deal between the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), General Motors and 34 big utility companies across the country to create a “refueling network” for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), I couldn‘t help but shake my head.
Back in the early 1990s, I watch a very similar strategy get launched with a lot of fanfare and hoopla, only to die a slow and largely quiet death, with little care from an American public now so desperate to find an alternative to petroleum-powered cars and trucks.
(The EV-1 ... one FAST car, let me assure you.)
Back then, GM and Ford in particular were rolling out near-production level electric vehicles - GM‘s famous EV-1 electric car, shaped like a cruise missile, alongside Ford‘s electric-powered Ranger pickup-based light trucks. I test drove both vehicles back then as a (much younger) transportation reporter just starting out in the business and they displayed all the power and performance you could ask for.
In fact, I nearly cracked up an EV-1 during my short (but eventful) test drive. Little did I know that GM‘s electric car accelerated FAR faster than most internal combustion engine-powered vehicles, as the transmission contained no gears. Depressing the accelerator like I normally did shot me and the GM technician riding shotgun in the EV-1 out of the parking lot like the proverbial bat out of hell, whereupon he slapped my chest and hollered, “Take your foot off the accelerator, Dale Earnhardt!” That sucker had some real power, let me tell you: GM‘s test track drivers could crank them up to 130 mph plus in the blink of an eye.
Back when the utility still sported the name Virginia Power (It‘s now Dominion Power), I drove down to its Richmond, VA, headquarters to participate in a ride and drive with big electric-powered pickups modified by local firm Baker Equipment Co., via its Baker Electromotive division. The parking lot sported all of these electric recharging stations, so the trucks could be kept fully juiced for whatever job needed. These were full sized pickups, mind you, with battery packs encased in solid steel boxes in the cargo bed, snug against the cab. I remember thinking about the potential of this concept, driving to work and plugging in your car or truck to recharge, then driving home and doing the same on the other end.
Suffering as we were with a mild oil price shock (compared to what we‘re going through now, it was VERY mild indeed) and recession following the Gulf War, it seemed an electric car recharging network would be a cinch to set up - and that its practicality would make it a slam dunk for consumers and corporations alike.
Dream on, apparently.
The price of oil started a long, slow slide, and with it went any thought of developing alternatively powered vehicles. GM, poised to crank out thousands of natural gas-powered pickups, hung up those plans. Both GM and Ford shelved their electric vehicle projects, eventually leading to that side splitting documentary “Who killed the electric car?” in 2006.
I mean, come on - the killer of the electric car is in the mirror every day. I mean, how do you sell an expensive product (Ford‘s all-electric Ranger retailed for $30,000 back in 1998) with limited “refueling” sites? The concept of PHEVs, like the Chevy Volt of today, were non-existent sad to say. By 1998-1999, gasoline cost LESS than a dollar a gallon - so no one looked twice at small cars, much less alternative-fueled ones.
But here we are again, come round to the same concept - creating an national electric “refueling” network from the county‘s power grid, a key step in providing the nation's drivers an alternative to petroleum fuels, said Arshad Mansoor, EPRI‘s vice president of power delivery and utilization this week.
”The EPRI-GM-utility effort is the result of many years of work by EPRI and its members to advance plug-in hybrids and related infrastructure technology to a point of feasible implementation and eventual commercialization,” he said. “The seamless integration of PHEVs into the electric grid will require close collaboration between the automobile and electric sectors.”
(Baker Electromotive and Ford joined forces to build all-electric postal delivery trucks back in the 1990s too. Bet the U.S. Postal Service wishes it had more of those vehicles in its fleet right now.)
Mansoor said the EPRI-GM-utility collaboration would work to accelerate large-scale deployment of PHEVs and create a blueprint for an electric fuel infrastructure, addressing a range of issues to ensure safe and convenient vehicle charging, public education, and public policies requirements to enable a smooth introduction of PHEVs as a transportation alternative to conventional vehicles.
”This research program will help link a low-carbon generation portfolio and a smart grid, which in turn will facilitate widespread adoption of electricity as an alternative transportation fuel,” Mansoor noted. “PHEVs have the potential of creating tremendous value for society by use of lesser emitting and lower cost electricity.”
Troy Clarke, president of GM‘s North America operation, noted those cost advantages in a speech at the Brookings Institute back on June 12. “A conventional vehicle that gets around 30 miles per gallon costs about 13 cents per mile to operate. But when you do the math to convert a kilowatt hour to cost per mile, an extended range electric vehicle like the Chevy Volt will cost about 2 cents a mile for electricity from the grid,” he explained. “So, it‘s not going to be difficult for customers to see the advantage in their pocketbooks.”
(The Volt -- sleek, super, and more than a decade late to the party.)
Too bad we didn‘t see this “advantage” about 16 years ago when the idea took its first lap around the track. Then maybe we wouldn‘t be in the position we are today, staring $120 to $140 per barrel oil prices in the face and $4 gasoline alongside $5 diesel at the pump. We wouldn‘t be witnessing a mad scramble for mass transit, nor the wholesale conversion or outright shut down of truck plants. We might‘ve had an orderly transition to light vehicles powered primarily by electricity, freeing up much-needed refinery capacity for fuel powering the freight sector. One can dream that we‘d be so smart as a society.
Dream on, apparently.