GM, utilities join to study electric car impact

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - General Motors Corp. has joined with more than 30 utility companies across the U.S. to help work out electricity issues that will crop up when it rolls out new electric vehicles in a little more than two years.

The Detroit automaker said the partnership, which includes the Electric Vehicle Research Institute and large utilities such as Southern California Edison and Duke Energy Corp., will deal with issues from tax incentives for the vehicles to where and when they can be plugged in for recharging.

GM is working to bring the Chevrolet Volt rechargeable car to showrooms in late 2010. It's being designed to run on an electric motor powered by lithium-ion batteries. When fully charged, it will be able to go 40 miles on battery power. For longer trips, a small internal combustion engine will recharge the batteries to keep the Volt moving.

"This vehicle is real. It's coming into production," said Britta Gross, a GM engineer who is helping to build the infrastructure for cars of the future. "We know that when the vehicle is in the showroom and ready for sale, it's got to work seamlessly with the infrastructure. It's the whole picture. We've got to make sure the infrastructure is ready."

GM and the utilities planned to announcement the partnership at a conference on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in San Jose.

The consortium will work on everything from policy issues including tax incentives for purchasing what is likely to be an expensive car to whether the electric generation system can handle the increased power demand.

The cars will have to be designed so recharging them can be timed to low-demand periods for electricity, Gross said. The speed of the recharging, voltage, amperage and other issues all have to be worked out, she said. The group also will address issues such as how apartment dwellers can charge their cars and where the vehicles will be charged at work or on trips - and who pays for the electricity, Gross said.

"We want this to sell in just huge volumes, so we want to get it right," she said.

A team of GM engineers and designers is working on the Volt, hoping to be the leader in plug-in electric vehicles. Other automakers, including Toyota Motor Corp., also are working on similar vehicles.

GM already is showing Volt prototypes to focus groups and is testing a new generation of batteries that can carry enough juice to run the vehicles 40 miles. It is being designed so it can be recharged from a conventional household electrical outlet.

But the car will be priced anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000, far more expensive than most conventional cars.

The group, Gross said, likely will seek government tax incentives for buyers because of the benefits the car brings to society, such as lowered greenhouse gas emissions and reduced dependence on foreign oil.

"The price to the consumer has got to be affordable," she said.

Utilities, she said, can benefit from the cars because they will sell more electricity during off-peak hours when they have idle generating capacity.

But automakers and utilities will have to work out ways to decide how to stagger recharging so local substations do not become overloaded, Gross said.

The Volt likely will need about 8 kilowatt-hours of energy to recharge, Gross said. The average U.S. utility charges about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, so it would cost the consumer about 80 cents to go the 40 miles, she said.


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