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The Strange Trip Of Electric Cars

Electric-powered cars seem like a logical way to reduce pollution from internal combustion engines. Electric utility officials and environmental activists agree that it’s much easier to control emissions from a few electric power plants than from millions of vehicles on millions of miles of roads. What could be simpler than building a car that plugs into a wall outlet to charge itself with electricity to power its zero-emissions motor?

As it turns out, the question is, “What could be more complicated?”

Back in the 1980s, the favorite dream of many automotive engineers went something like this: develop a battery that would rapidly charge with electricity from a stationary site (such as a wall plug in a garage), make that fit into a normal-looking car, and have it produce enough reliable power for trips of at least 100 miles—and at comparable speeds to other traffic.

While engineers tried to make batteries more efficient and less bulky, and develop engines with enough horsepower and torque to perform in normal driving conditions, electric utilities had their own dreams.

Steve Lindenberg, executive director of Research and Technical Services at the National Rural Electric Co-op Association, says, “Electric cars could be charged on a special meter at very low rates during off-peak demand times, perhaps from nine at night until five in the morning. That would provide two advantages. The electricity user would get a very good deal with such special low pricing, and utilities would be able to use their generating facilities more evenly over any 24-hour period.”

In just one example of turning dreams into reality, General Motors engineers managed to get a totally electric model into limited production about two years ago. But of the 1,000 little two-seater models built, only about one-third are still on the road. As leases expired on the rest of them, the experimental cars have been parked—and many are headed to museums as examples of “what might have been.”

That’s because the dream has changed. Car buyers didn’t have much enthusiasm for the all-electric cars, and incentives from air-quality regulations kept changing. Since the mid-1990s, the focus has gradually shifted from a totally electric car to what’s known as a hybrid electric vehicle, which combines the features of a traditional gasoline-powered engine with electricity.

Toyota’s emerged as an industry leader, selling more than 130,000 hybrids worldwide since 1997. Ford plans to introduce a hybrid version of its Escape compact SUV for fleet customers this fall. But hybrid technology so far relies on generating the electricity needed within the vehicle itself instead of needing to be “plugged in” for re-charging.

Where does that leave electric utilities that had been dreaming of new uses for their power? In a surprisingly good position. While highway-style cars powered solely by electricity remain a dream, there are many niche markets for other kinds of “plug-in” vehicles. Modified golf cart-style electric vehicles are proving useful in such specialty situations as multi-acre vacation resorts, on sprawling college and business campuses where other traffic is limited, and even in dense urban areas where high speed isn’t needed.

Plug-in electric bicycles (with a sort of power assist option for weary pedalers and uphill terrain) with travel ranges beyond 10 miles are available for less than $1,000.

New versions of electric boats (not just trolling motors) offer speed and maneuverability and are beginning to replace traditional diesel and gas-powered watercraft. Electric boats may become an important way to improve water quality by reducing pollutants on recreational lakes.

New versions of electric lawnmowers that run on batteries instead of long extension cords may soon play a part in reducing air pollution in city and suburban areas. Larger electric ride-on mowers suitable for use in rural areas might be the next step in improving air quality.

Electric utilities will soon be providing power for a variety of electric “plug-in” vehicles, each with its own role in America’s quest for a cleaner environment. Your garage could soon be the nighttime charging-up spot for an assortment of familiar-looking vehicles that just happen to run on electricity.

To find out more, visit the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas Web site at www.evaa.org/evaa/index.htm, or the U.S. Department of Energy Web site at www.ott.doe.gov/jtb_electric_vehicles.shtml.

Next month: Bio Energy Down on the Farm

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