Progress Energy pushes electric vehicles

03/09/12 Janelle Irwin
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As part of an effort to prepare for a growing number of electric vehicles on the road, Progress Energy is conducting studies that include using their own electric fleet. The energy utility hosted a seminar for businesses at a mid-Pinellas hotel this morning.

The 21st century hasn’t yet turned into a scene straight out of the Jetsons with flying cars, but it kind of sounds like it. The engine in the electric motor of the Chevy Volt doesn’t make much noise, so the car’s audio system simulates the sound of being turned on and off. James Culp drives one. He’s the lead alternative energy strategist for Progress Energy and the Volt is part of his electric fleet. He said the cars are part of a research and development project to make sure the energy utility is ready for increasing numbers of cars like the Volt on the roads.

“Nationally we’re monitoring all of the data that’s starting to come in from data logging all of these vehicles and charging stations. What time of day are they being plugged in? When are they being unplugged? What’s the state of charge on the battery when the vehicle is plugged in? In the case of the Volt, how many electric miles compared to how many gasoline miles are there? So, by understanding all of that, it’s going to help us make wise choices and wise decisions on how it would impact our grid and things that we could do.”

And Britta Gross, the director of global energy and infrastructure at General Motors, said her company is spreading that same initiative over 50 major utilities.

“Going back five years now, we established a very large national partnership with a lot of leading utilities like Progress Energy here in central Florida. We’ve been working as partners for five years, building up to this day where we’ve got vehicles in the dealerships. We’re making sure we understand everything about the grid - how it works - how will it be if there are a million of these vehicles on the road? - what are the impacts on the grid - is the charging an issue or a non-issue? - making sure we understand around the environment that an electric vehicle is going to have to live with.”

But Culp from Progress Energy said the number one thing keeping a lot of people from taking the leap from pump to plug is range anxiety. That means drivers are afraid they won’t get from point A to point B without running out of juice. But that’s why GM made their electric car different. Instead of running on just a battery, it also has a gas powered generator. So when the battery goes dead, the generator takes over. But the difference shows in the price tag – about 40 thousand dollars. GM’s Gross said a $7500 tax credit helps with sticker shock and over time, that price could drop.

“From today to the point where we can the cost out because of the volume – get the scale up, get the volume – but also engineering learnings and production learnings. These are major, major learning periods for us right now. How do we take engineering and cost out of this vehicle? Where do you cut back? Did we overdesign the battery? Did we overdesign the cooling system or some of the electronics on board the vehicle? You don’t know that until you’ve got years of experience and data and feedback from customers driving the vehicle and now you make this downward trajectory and bring costs out of the vehicle.”

And AAA is doing their part to ease some of the dead battery fears stifling electric vehicle sales. Their spokesperson, Jessica Brady said as part of the group’s mission to make traveling easier for members they are installing charging stations that can be used for free at some AAA locations. So far there’s only six, but Brady expects that number to grow. And electric vehicles, she added, will also be eligible for roadside assistance.

“If you break down on the side of the road, you call AAA. We’ll either do one of two things. We’ll come out to you and tow your vehicle or if you ran out of gas we’ll provide you with a few gallons of gas to get you where you need to go. So, just like that. If you break down or if your battery dies in your electric vehicle, we will come out and provide you with enough charge to get you another 10 or 12 miles to get you over that bridge or to get you home or where ever it is that you need to go.”

Electric vehicles are also evolving not just in technology, but in shape and size. Other EVs run about 100 miles per charge on just a battery and they come in utility vehicles and sports cars, not just standard sedans. Progress Energy’s James Culp said in any of those models, the potential savings is significant whether it’s in a fleet or an average owner.

“In this car right here, for example, basically a little over $3 to get 100 miles. Compare that to your regular gasoline vehicle to go 100 miles. You’re looking at what? About 3 or 4 gallons of gasoline?”

Culp gets pretty excited about plug-in cars. So he let people drive his. As soon as the driver gets in and closes the door, the car wakes up. Once the car is on, there’s virtually no noise. Even in drive, the sounds of shifting transmissions is so hush it’s like it’s not even there at all. But since not everyone gets the chance to take a stranger’s car for a spin, Enterprise rents them - five in Pinellas and five in Tampa – for about $40 a day. Sales executive Joel Rodgers said most of the cars are reserved each week. But because the only model they offer is the Nissan Leaf, one that can only go about 100 miles before needing a re-charge, it takes a certain type of customer.

“In this situation, somebody that’s going to be staying in town. They don’t necessarily have to go to Orlando or Miami for business. They‘re going to be travelling from north county to south county or maybe just over to Tampa. It’s important with the charging stations and the infrastructure in place that we can do that and that’s why being a part of this and being with NovaCharge and companies like that who are installing those stations make it such a huge success for us.”

Rodgers said Enterprise plans to add more electric vehicle options to their rental inventory, but doesn’t know when that will happen. And for now, even though more and more people are buying these types of cars, all of the people in the EV industry say they are working to make ownership easier. Progress Energy’s Culp said one thing he is sure of is that there is more than enough available energy to charge a growing number of electric cars.

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