November 27, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Agencies line up for plug-in cars

Plug-in hybrids are getting drafted for government work.

State and local governments are launching programs to see if it's possible to convert their hybrid cars and trucks into plug-in cars.

Plug-ins are like regular hybrids in that they have both electric and gas motors. But they come with more battery packs, so the car can run more on electricity than on gas. They can get about 100 miles to the gallon, get charged from a wall socket and generally emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional cars or other hybrids.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority recently solicited contract bids for nine plug-ins, said Ray Hull, an official at the agency. If the trial succeeds, the state will try to convert the 535 hybrids it owns into plug-ins. It will also use the program to demonstrate the economic viability of plug-ins and promote the concept with the public. The anticipated budget for the program is $10 million.

Gov. George Pataki, who is also boosting the state as a semiconductor and nanotechnology center, was the force behind getting the program through the New York legislature this summer, Hull added.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California is conducting a $1 million plug-in incentive program.

Also in California, San Francisco has ordered diesel hybrids from DaimlerChrysler for its municipal transportation fleet. (Another company, Enova Systems, a plug-in conversions specialist, is promoting hybrid diesel school buses.)

These programs may help move plug-ins from the world of car hobbyists into the mainstream.

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"There is kind of a snowball effect, from individuals and small companies to larger companies and agencies," said Marc Kohler, the business development manger at Valence Technology, which makes lithium ion batteries for plug-ins and laptops. "Everybody is still in the testing phase, but the testing is becoming more mature. People are looking at crash testing and cold-weather testing."

Right now, only a few small companies, such as Energy Control Systems Engineering and HyMotion, offer help to hybrid owners who want to install the extra batteries necessary to turn a Toyota Prius into a plug-in.

Although no major car manufacturer currently produces a plug-in hybrid, they are beginning to warm up to the concept. "We are seriously studying the plug-in, especially for short distance drivers," Yusei Higaki, a project manager in the global external affairs division at Toyota, said in an interview last month.

Plug-in price tag
To date, price has been a big issue. It costs about $10,000 to $12,000 to convert a car like a Prius into a plug-in, according to Kohler, and the price can go higher, depending on the size and type of additional battery and other features. Moreover, hybrids cost around $3,000 more than an equivalent car powered simply by gasoline.

As a result, even plug-in enthusiasts such as Felix Kramer of the California Cars initiative (CalCars) concede that, economically speaking, the case for plug-ins is tough to make.

The price, however, for converting a hybrid to a plug-in could drop in a few years to $5,000 or less, if larger volumes of orders start to come in, Kohler said.

The driving range has been another major stumbling block. Batteries are far less efficient, pound for pound, than gas in terms of storing energy. A 500-pound battery can take a vehicle about as far as three liters of gasoline can. As a result, electric cars can only go 70 to 200 miles before needing a recharge. With plug-ins, the battery gets drained quickly if there's a lot of freeway driving, which means that consumers are really just driving gas cars.

The range problem may begin to erode over time as batteries improve, Kohler said. For government agencies, however, range will not necessarily be a deal breaker. School buses only go a few miles a day, and a lot of government fleet cars drive around within fairly limited geographic areas. Thus, agencies could conceivably start buying plug-ins for fleets before the range problem is worked out.

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As with most government programs, the plug-in tests will take time. Sacramento has put about 1,000 miles on its plug-in so far, and the car will be driven for two more years in the first round of testing. Only after that test will the California city determine whether to start purchasing these kinds of vehicles. The city agency plans to share some preliminary data from the tests soon.

New York will probably get its first plug-in vehicle, a modified Toyota Prius, later this year, Hull said. The state also wants to get a Ford Escape hybrid converted to a plug-in. No one has converted an Escape, he said, so it could take a number of months before that car arrives. Under the New York program, the state will take delivery of three prototypes, and then expand to nine.

Converting the cars isn't the only problem, Hull added. Getting the cars can be a challenge, too. Cars in the New York state pool are silver, but that color is in high demand on the Prius, so the state may have to settle for green, he said.

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