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A maintenance bay at the Louisville offices of
Kentucky’s electric co-ops spent a day late last year hosting the nation’s drive for energy efficiency.

Two Toyota Prius hybrid cars rolled in from out of town for an operation to boost their already thrifty 45 miles per gallon to more than 100 miles a gallon.

“Electric co-ops are going to have to get out front and be leaders and resources for their members for dealing with higher energy costs,” says Dan Brewer, president and CEO of Blue Grass Energy co-op based in Nicholasville, which owns one of the two hybrids converted that day. “We had the opportunity to get some experience with this technology and we took advantage of it.”

The technology involves installing an additional battery into the Prius to provide enough energy to allow the car to be driven up to 40 miles on electric power at low speeds. The additional battery is recharged by plugging it into a standard electric outlet. In addition to the advantage of lowering gasoline use and costs, a national group of utility scientists and engineers has identified plug-in hybrid vehicles as one of the major ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that have been blamed for global warming.

Toyota’s Prius gets high gas mileage by switching between gasoline and batteries that are recharged by excess power produced when the car is using gas. A Canadian company called Hymotion developed a way for the Prius to get even higher mileage, by installing a battery pack that could be recharged from any home electric outlet.

A Massachusetts company named A123 acquired Hymotion, and is producing conversion kits for newer model Priuses.

Those conversion kits got the attention of the Cooperative Research Network, part of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. It just so happens that Blue Grass Energy co-op’s Dan Brewer chairs the committee that oversees CRN. So when the research group made plug-in hybrids one of its national test projects, Blue Grass Energy co-op volunteered to help.

The research involved electric co-ops across the country test-driving the converted hybrids. When the Illinois electric co-ops also signed on, the co-op garage in Louisville surfaced as the logical spot for the conversions.

With the two, four-hour installations, the Illinois and Blue Grass cars became the 10th and 11th plug-in hybrids being tested in the Cooperative Research Network program.

The CRN hybrid conversion includes installation of a transmitter that sends performance data to be used in the study. CRN will use that information to analyze the most efficient ways to use plug-in hybrids, including how the batteries might be charged using electricity at the most cost-effective times of day, to make the most effective use of power plants.

Brewer says, “We want to be able to figure out what will happen when people start plugging in thousands of these hybrids.”



IS A PLUG-IN HYBRID FOR ME?

For the best deal in getting 100 miles a gallon, wait a while.

Although the mileage sounds tempting, the plug-in hybrid cars described on this page are still experimental, and expensive.

In addition to buying one of the newer Toyota Prius hybrid cars, the conversion costs more than $10,000. As with so many innovations, plug-in hybrids are expected to get more convenient and less expensive as they get more popular.

Other conversion kits are available besides the Hymotion package featured on these pages, but pay careful attention to cost, performance, and your own abilities if you are considering a do-it-yourself installation. One reason electric co-ops are working with the package produced by Hymotion is that it has been approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, including meeting crash-test standards.

Here are some good spots on the Internet to learn more about plug-in hybrid vehicles:

• The site of the company that performed the conversion described on these pages, the Advanced Vehicle Research Center, can be found at www.avrc.com. That site includes information on a new leasing program for plug-in hybrid Toyota Priuses and Ford Escapes.

• The site of the company that developed the rechargeable battery pack used to convert the Prius, Hymotion, can be found at www.hymotion.com. That site includes locations of conversion kit installers (the closest one to Kentucky is Washington, D.C.).

Kentucky Living published an in-depth look at the electric co-op plug-in hybrid test program in May 2008. To find that report, go to plug-in.

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