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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Plug-in Cars

Air Date: Week of

California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric is investing billions of dollars in infrastructure to support plug-in electric cars, which are expected to be available in 2010. Jill Egbert is manager of PG&E's clean air transportation program and talks with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Pacific Gas and Electric serves five point one million customers and it’s fair to say very few, if any, use their electricity to power a car. Well, soon that’s going to change. Several auto manufacturers are promising plug-in electric vehicles will be available by 2010 and PG&E wants to be ready with the energy infrastructure when the cars hit the road. The West Coast utility has announced it’s investing billions of dollars to build what it calls the smart grid. Jill Egbert is manager of Pacific Gas and Electric’s clean air transportation program, and she joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome Jill!

EGBERT: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So the idea as I understand it is that instead of stopping by a gas station on the way home, I just pull into my garage and plug in.

EGBERT: That’s the future vision that we see. And we’re working very hard on the infrastructure, the communications, and the control technologies to make that a reality for our customers. The near term application would be what’s termed “smart charging” where you would come home, plug your vehicle in, and then a smart meter would actually start charging your vehicle in off-peak hours so you’re charged the least amount of money. We hope to have all those smart meters in place by 2012 and this technology could become a reality.

(George W. Hatcher)

GELLERMAN: And off-peak hours are traditionally late at night.

EGBERT: Correct. That’s between midnight and six in the morning.

GELLERMAN: These vehicles will have a limited mileage they can go and how can you be so sure that people are going to plug them to charge in off-peak hours? What happens if everyone starts plugging them in right in the middle of the day when you need the electricity the most?

EGBERT: We want to work closely with our customers to educate them because if they do plug in during peak hours it’s gonna cost them a lot more money to fuel that vehicle.

GELLERMAN: Is it going to be that significant where I just say it’s “Ah, you know, it’s a couple of pennies and so what?”

EGBERT: I think it’s five cents off-peak and probably closer to 25 or 30 cents on peak.

GELLERMAN: Boy, I imagine if people could do that with gasoline right now we’d have a whole different reality.


GELLERMAN: If I have a fully charged electric car sitting outside my house, storing energy in my batteries, could I not then send it back to you and sell it to you?

EGBERT: We see that as a very, very long-term vision, maybe 15 to 20 years out. Probably the first thing that you would, we would be seeing is that if you had that battery full and say your power went out in your neighborhood you could actually use the energy in the battery to power up a few essentials in your home while the utility actually came to turn your power back on. There would be enough power in the battery to keep your T.V. on, your refrigerator on, and maybe a couple of lights.

(Courtesy of Pacific Gas and Electric)

GELLERMAN: So it would turn electricity into a two-way street.

EGBERT: Yes, what you’re talking about is what’s termed vehicle-to-grid technology where you would use the energy in your battery to sell it back to the utility during critical peak times and that’s gonna take a lot of technology, two-way communications to make that a reality but maybe, you know, 15 to 20 years out.

GELLERMAN: Well, today, what can your grid handle in terms of electric cars?

EGBERT: In California, the grid can handle 3.9 million plug-in hybrid vehicles today. And PG&E’s about 40 percent of that so we’re looking at close to two million vehicles that our grid could handle today.

GELLERMAN: Where would all of this electricity come from? I mean in the United States about, what, 50 percent of our energy comes from coal. So if I’m powering my car with that type of electricity I’m, you know, I’m not doing much good for the environment, am I?

EGBERT: I agree, I agree. PG&E’s energy portfolio is among the cleanest in the industry—over 50 percent of our energy portfolio is CO2-free. We have a large portion of hydro, nuclear, natural gas. We only have one percent coal.

GELLERMAN: Now PG&E is in the business of making not just electricity but money, right?

EGBERT: Well, actually we are de-coupled in California and we do not make money on additional sales of electricity.

GELLERMAN: So how are you going to make money out of this venture? It’s going to cost you billions of dollars.

EGBERT: We see the opportunity to better utilize our assets and hopefully be able to lower rates for all of our customers in the long run.

GELLERMAN: So it’s a matter of efficiency. If people plug in their cars overnight, it makes your grid more efficient because PG&E has to be generating that electricity overnight anyhow so you may as well put it to good use, and I get to put it in my car, and we’ll all come out ahead.

EGBERT: That’s exactly right. We are generating that electricity to serve our customers. We want to utilize our assets to their most potential.

GELLERMAN: Chevy has a new car coming out in 2010 called the Volt. And Prius, Toyota’s Prius, is going to be coming out with a competing car, a plug-in hybrid, in about the same time frame now they’ve announced. So I guess the idea for PG&E is that you’ll build it, and they will come.

EGBERT: We’re working very closely with the auto manufacturers to make sure that we are all in alignment and it’s a seamless transition for the customers. We want to make sure our customers are educated to plug those vehicles in off-peak so that we don’t have to build additional infrastructure to support these vehicles.

GELLERMAN: Well Jill thank you very much, I appreciate your time.

EGBERT: Thank you so much, Bruce, for having me.

GELLERMAN: Jill Egbert is manager of Pacific Gas and Electric’s “Clean Air” transportation program.



Pacific Gas and Electric website

Previous LOE coverage on electric cars


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