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Honey, Did You Plug in the Prius?

July 7, 2009 - 5:07pm

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An unexpected snowfall in late March prompted me to take my two daughters, Paloma and Ava, for a memorable afternoon of sledding and hot chocolate. However, before leaving home, I unplugged a cord from the standard 110-volt wall socket in my garage and did likewise from the port on the back of my 2007 Toyota Prius. I rolled up the cord, placed it in my trunk, and smoothly drove off. Nestled in my vehicle's spare tire well, a 200-pound lithium-ion battery pack allowed me to go up to 30 miles on electric power before recharging.

Yes, I’m fortunate to be one of the only private owners of a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) in the nation, and maybe the only one with toddler and booster seats in the back. PHEVs, of course, are touted by policymakers across the political spectrum as a central near-term solution for kicking our oil jones.

Despite the current hype, not long ago, even hybrid-electric vehicles(HEVs) were akin to the original Sundance Film Festival: quirky, low-key and no competition for the established order. But just as Sundance has come into its own, hybrids have swiftly evolved into a juggernaut, gaining force with each new oil price shock.

HEVs marry a conventional internal combustion engine with an electric motor. This happy union produces many benefits, including low emissions, greater fuel economy and the range and easy fueling of traditional vehicles. PHEVs take it to the next level, “amping” up the battery power and conferring additional benefits to consumers and the nation. Since electricity costs less than gasoline, PHEV owners enjoy fuel savings by tapping into the electric grid. And since PHEVs use less gas, that translates to greater energy security and less reliance on imported oil.

PHEVs can also significantly reduce carbon emissions if the electricity’s source is efficient power plants, resulting in improved public health and cleaner air. Even better, PHEV owners taking part in a renewable energy program through their local utility can take to the road with electricity drawn from wind, biomass and solar power. I joined such a program before my Prius was converted into a PHEV last July, so 100% of the electricity recharging my additional battery pack is from renewable sources.

Unfortunately, the high cost of advanced-technology batteries has kept automakers from mass-producing PHEVs (but some should be available soon). Meanwhile, a few entrepreneurial “conversion” companies take stock vehicles and add an aftermarket battery pack, paving the way for when PHEVs will be on showroom floors.

In fact, one of those companies converted my Prius on-site at a festival last summer in Madison, Wisconsin. That’s when my wife Brenda and I joined the very limited number of PHEV owners nationwide. Other than a few who have converted their own vehicles, PHEV owners are almost exclusively utilities or fleets participating in research projects.

Good fortune enabled me to be one of the nation's first PHEV owners. I helm Wisconsin Clean Cities, a nonprofit organization housed at We Energies, Wisconsin's largest utility. The utility offered to cover the $11,000 cost to convert my Prius last year, enlisting me as a one-unit demonstration project on how PHEVs might enhance our area's electrical generation and distribution system. For instance, it is best for me to charge my car at night, when demand is low and wind power tends to be the strongest.

While it's great to “drive the talk” as a PHEV owner, I still must eco-drive to maximize my fuel savings and air quality benefits. And while it's very cool to glide in “stealth mode” when I’m all-electric for much of the 30-mile PHEV's range, I still love to take my other hybrid for the seven-mile daily commute. That hybrid is from my friendly neighborhood bike shop. You just can't beat zero emissions, better health, and big fun.

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