Monday, April 27, 2009

Electric Cars Made in Tennessee

Check out this article, Tennessee, Nissan and TVA forge a path for electric car, in the Tennessean:

Tennessee may be getting a jump-start on preparations for the electric car, but how quickly Americans take to it and how enthusiastically power companies support it remain key questions as the government and automakers push for more alternative-fuel vehicles.

Gov. Phil Bredesen spent part of Earth Day last week test-driving a Nissan prototype all-electric vehicle at the automaker's U.S. headquarters in Franklin, where the car stopped on a multistate tour promoting the Japanese company's plans to introduce its first electric car in the United States next year.

But as Nissan and other automakers gear up to produce electric cars, there are hurdles ahead for utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is being called on to play a key role in developing fueling stations for the vehicles.

One of the biggest challenges to the nation's power grid "is going to be the introduction of electric vehicles," said Dana Christiansen, associate director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has partnered with Nissan, TVA and the state of Tennessee to help develop the charging infrastructure to support the vehicles.

TVA and its independent power distributors are "going to be heavily impacted by the introduction of electric vehicles … as we add tens of thousands and possibly millions of these vehicles onto our highways," said Ken Breeden, TVA's executive vice president for customer resources.

Coming to public in '12

Nissan's first electric car is to go into corporate and government fleets beginning in late 2010. It would then be offered for public use in 2012, said Brian Carolin, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Nissan North America Inc.

Bredesen said the state is committed to buying some of the vehicles for its own use, as well as helping to develop the necessary resources to support the vehicles, including installing charging stations in strategic locations such as downtown areas or shopping mall parking lots.

"Nissan is taking a leadership role by developing what could be this industry's next big thing," the governor said.

The car Bredesen and others drove at Nissan's U.S. headquarters — an electric-powered version of the new Nissan Cube crossover vehicle — isn't the model the automaker will introduce here next year. But it does have the same electric motor and lithium-ion battery system that will power the five-passenger compact car that Nissan plans to roll out.

Other carmakers plug in

Other automakers are working on electric vehicles as well, including Chrysler LLC, which plans to provide the U.S. Postal Service with a fleet of 250 all-electric Chrysler Town & Country minivans in Michigan, North Carolina and the New York City area beginning later this year. It's part of a test before the company starts selling to the public within the next two years.

Chevrolet next year will introduce the Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric car. The Volt runs on an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery pack, but also has an onboard gasoline-powered charging system to help extend the car's range when a charging station isn't available.

The Postal Service's electric vans will have a range of about 40 miles between charges, Chrysler said. Retail versions will use a system similar to that of the Volt, with a small gasoline engine used strictly to run a generator to recharge the onboard battery pack.

That's probably going to be the most popular arrangement for electric cars for consumers, as they will want their vehicles to have extended range for highway trips in areas where charging facilities aren't readily available, said Joe Hoagland, TVA's vice president for environmental science, technology and policy.

"Whether a real electric vehicle can work on the highway is still a big question," he said. "The hybrid is probably the best option. We don't have the electric infrastructure on the highway to recharge cars."

To recharge on rural stretches of highway, the power companies "would have to bring in whole new power lines," Hoagland said. "I see that happening, but probably a long time in the future."

Today, TVA is concentrating on making sure that electric cars such as those Nissan wants to introduce can be recharged at people's homes overnight and at strategic points such as company parking garages during daylight hours.

The big utility's ability to meet the demand for power created by a shift from gasoline to electric-powered cars will depend on how many of them are purchased, as well as when people recharge them, Hoagland said.

Nightly charge is best

If vehicles get plugged in at night, TVA will be able to handle the extra load easily because a lot of unused power is available in those off hours, Hoagland said. "I think a lot of folks will do that."

But because the range of the vehicles will be relatively short — up to 100 miles between charges for the Nissan electric car — Hoagland said that many consumers will need to "charge at work, the grocery store or other places" away from home.

If mass charging of cars takes place during the daytime, particularly in the afternoon when energy demand is at its peak, then TVA and other power providers will have to add generating capacity, he said.

"We'll need smart-grid technology to manage how that charging gets done so we don't overload the system," he said.

That could lead to incentive pricing plans that would make it more expensive for consumers to charge their batteries during peak power-usage periods than in off hours, such as overnight, some analysts said.

Also being worked out is how to bill consumers for recharging done away from their own homes, Hoagland said.

"There has to be some way to bill for the electricity, since parking garages aren't going to want to give away the power," he said. "Somehow we will have to be able to identify and bill each car, perhaps using a credit card, or having the charge go back to the consumer's home electric bill."

Quick fill-up takes toll

While recharging cars slowly overnight at home may take six hours or more, most people out on the road will want a quick-charge option that takes no more than 15 or 20 minutes, Hoagland said.

That could involve high-voltage charging stations that people could pull into as they do at gasoline stations. Consumers also might want a quick-charge option at their homes, as well, for when they don't have time to wait for an overnight charge, Hoagland said.

"Suppose you come home from work and you want to go back out to dinner," he said. "You would need a fast charge."

Such scenarios present additional problems, observers said.

"That takes a whole lot more power, and transformers that serve houses are not designed for that much of a load, especially if your neighbors are charging their cars at the same time," Hoagland said.

TVA also recognizes the criticism from some environmentalists who say that converting from gasoline to electric-powered cars just moves the pollution point from a vehicle's tailpipe to the smokestacks of the power plants that burn fossil fuels such as coal.

As TVA and other utilities "move toward generation that is less carbon-intensive, we can bring that carbon footprint down," Hoagland said. Alternatives that would reduce pollution include nuclear energy and renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.

Will TVA be ready when a glut of electric cars finally hits U.S. roadways?

"That depends on how fast they come," Hoagland said. "And that will be determined by how fast manufacturers get up to speed with production, and how quickly consumers make the jump."

• Operates purely on electricity, using an advanced lithium-ion battery pack to power an electric motor. No gasoline.
• Compact car with room for up to five passengers plus luggage

• Range of about 100 miles between charges

• Eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, plus other potential state and local incentives

• 220 volts needed for home charging — the same as most air conditioners

• Nissan is developing a quick-charge system that could take as little as 26 minutes to refuel.

Source: Nissan North America Inc.

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