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Plug-in hybrids have miles to go for widespread use

Anyone strolling about the exhibition floor of the L.A. Auto Show this week can be forgiven for thinking that the battle for the green car has been won, and the plug-in electric hybrid is the victor.

Scads of major automakers unveiled models that are within a year or two of showroom readiness, with the Chevy Volt (projected to run for 40 miles on a household charge before switching to gasoline) drawing perhaps the most buzz. Irvine-based Fisker Automotive Inc. took a booth to promote its forthcoming $88,000 Karma, a plug-in luxury hybrid.

When not fending off questions about the ouster of General Motors Chief Executive Fritz Henderson a day earlier, GM’s venerable product executive Bob Lutz devoted his keynote speech Wednesday kicking off two days of media previews to talking up the “totally revolutionary” Volt and GM’s commitment to electric propulsion.

“People continue to think of GM as the company that ‘killed the electric car,’ ” he said, alluding to the title of a 2006 documentary about the end of its experimental EV1 electric vehicle program in 1999. “The electric car is far from dead at GM.”

The plug-in hybrid car has emerged as the most-favored candidate for alternative fuel vehicle of the future. Although the L.A. Auto Show’s Green Car of the Year award went to a clean-diesel car for the second year in a row (this year the Audi A3 TDI), there are good reasons for the plug-in hybrid’s claim on mind share.

Battery technology has advanced to the point where 100 miles on a charge is a practical goal; a gasoline engine that kicks in after the charge is spent alleviates what carmakers sense is the buying public’s greatest concern -- “range anxiety,” or the EV (for electric vehicle) driver’s fear of being stranded, juiceless, miles from a power outlet.

Green car advocates say the plug-in’s electric range should suit the daily commute of more than 80% of U.S. drivers, allowing them to charge up at home overnight. They add that shifting the nation’s automotive fuel source from on-board gasoline to power from the central electric grid will make personal transportation more efficient, cleaner and much less dependent on oil.

“EVs are at a point of no return,” I was assured last week by Jason Wolf, an executive at Better Place, a Palo Alto firm aiming to provide charging services for plug-in drivers. “Over 70% of major manufacturers have some kind of mass plug-in coming in the next two years. That’s a milestone.”

Yet plug-ins or fully electric cars can’t run on hope and expectations any more than today’s Buicks and Hondas can run on cooking oil. A lot has to change in policy, practice and public attitude for plug-ins to reach critical mass in the U.S. private fleet.

The good news is that government agencies and other stakeholders in the power business are beginning to think about these issues now. Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a plan for the Department of Water and Power to subsidize the installation of 5,000 home chargers and institute a discount rate for off-peak car charging (6 p.m. to 2 a.m.).

The state Public Utilities Commission began working this year on rules for utilities and users of electric cars. Southern California Edison and other utilities hanker for the business EVs will bring -- especially if owners can be pushed to charge up at night, when the electric grid lies mostly fallow.

There’s little consensus over what policies are needed, or even how the EV will fit into America’s driving culture. Some forecasters see the entire country eventually motoring on electricity, but others doubt that the EV will ever have the range to be more than a second family car for commuting.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to see people driving across the country in these things, realistically,” says Matthew Mattila, a transportation consultant at the ultra-green Rocky Mountain Institute (one of the last places you’d expect to hear EV skepticism).

When I asked Lutz what he hoped to see from Washington, he mentioned raising federal fuel taxes to lock in a big margin between the cost of running EVs and gas-powered cars. “People are not going to pay tens of thousands of dollars more in order to save a couple of hundred dollars a year on gasoline,” he said.

To the green car lobby, that sounds like conventional Detroit thinking. Leaving aside the ain’t-gonna-happen factor in the idea of raising the federal gas tax, they say, plug-ins already have a decisive cost advantage at today’s gas prices.

“An electric mile costs 2 to 3 cents, compared to 8 to 20 cents for a gasoline mile,” says Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a nonprofit promoter of plug-ins. “Obviously it helps to have much higher gas prices, but I’ve never met a Prius owner who’s done the payback calculations.” (Though some nonbuyers may have done the math.)

Kramer says the federal government’s best option is to provide financial incentives for EV buyers. By that light, the stimulus package, which includes tax credits of up to $7,500 for buyers of the first 200,000 vehicles from each manufacturer, will help drive the country toward President Obama’s goal of 1 million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015.

Even that, however, would be “a drop in the bucket” of what’s needed to turn a significant percentage of the nation’s 250 million vehicles green, Kramer says. Making a dent in the U.S. thirst for oil will require retrofitting existing gas guzzlers with hybrid drives, a technology he says is available today.

The biggest infrastructure change involves the nation’s electric grid. People charging cars in their garages may need to upgrade their home circuits, which often requires municipal permits, building inspections and other headaches.

Government agencies will have to start making rules now to goad employers into installing charge stations for employees to top off their batteries during the work day, and owners of apartment buildings into providing chargers for tenants. Green car advocates recall with shudders the roadblocks that landlords in some cities placed in the way of cable TV companies during the original rollout of that technology years ago.

As the PUC has learned, finding the right policy is no simple feat. One might think that, in the interest of encouraging all car buyers to consider plug-ins, electric utilities should be permitted to let ‘er rip -- invest heavily in system upgrades like new neighborhood transformers, and put the tab on everyone’s electric bill.

That’s the position of General Motors. But GM wants to sell cars, so the less its buyers pay to install charging boxes for their Volts, the better.

Not so fast, says the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, which says it’s standing up for all ratepayers, not just early adopters with EVs. TURN told the PUC that allowing the utilities to charge the whole rate base for EV-oriented upgrades would encourage them to be “profligate” in spending “ostensibly to meet EV loads,” which may never actually materialize. The concern is that drivers of gas cars, even thrifty ones, might end up subsidizing their super-green neighbors.

“We’re in the early days here,” says Pedro Pizarro, Edison’s executive vice president for power operations. “All of us in the market -- cities, utilities, auto manufacturers, auto dealers -- need to figure it out together.”

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com, read earlier columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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