Washington state project smooths way for plug-in hybrid cars

Businesses and public agencies in Washington state are testing electric plug-in hybrid vehicles to help smooth a transition away the gas-guzzling variety.

Mass adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will change how we live, said Ron Johnston-Rodriguez, who's helping coordinate a statewide project to assess lithium battery packs that have been installed on 14 Toyota Prius hybrids owned by, among others, Benton Public Utility District, Energy Northwest, Walla Walla Community College, Port of Chelan County and the University of Washington.

The yearlong project, sponsored by the Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and the Port of Chelan County, will collect data on battery charging and mileage and emissions in different weather and road conditions.

Michael Kintner-Meyer, a staff scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland said that plug-ins could displace 52 percent of net oil imports, and the idle capacity of the U.S. power grid could supply 158 million electric vehicles if they are charged during off-peak hours, he said.

Kintner-Meyer is involved in a separate project with the University of Michigan to study the economic and technical challenges plug-in hybrid vehicles pose for the power grid.

In the long term, plug-ins will change the business model public utilities use to supply power, Kintner-Meyer said. They may move toward what's called "critical peak pricing," or charging a higher rate when the grid is experiencing a higher load, he said.

At PNNL, Kintner-Meyer is working to develop a "smart charging controller" that could help consumers automatically recharge plug-in hybrids during "off" critical hours. That way consumers would not have to remember when to plug in their vehicles.

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