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One of the latest trends in the auto industry is carmakers teaming up with electric companies. It's part of the race for new plug-in versions of hybrid vehicles, and today General Motors announced a partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute and more than 30 utility companies. From Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer reports on what both sides hope to get out of the partnership.
DUSTIN DWYER: Right now, no major car company builds a vehicle that plugs in for electric power, but in a few years, that will change. GM, Toyota and Nissan all have plans for plug-in vehicles. GM's version is called the Volt. It's expected to go 40 miles on a single charge, and GM engineer Britta Gross says at today's rate, that charge will cost you 80 cents.
Ms. BRITTA GROSS (Engineer): At the end of the week, seven days, you've got a bill of $5.60. That's an enormous incentive to consumers, when you compare that to what it would cost to run a vehicle on gasoline today.
DWYER: That low cost of operation is just one reason GM is moving toward plug-in electric vehicles, but bringing them to market isn't as simple as just building the cars and handing people a power cord, because in big numbers these cars will use up a lot of electricity.
The good news is power companies do have extra capacity. Mark Duvall is with the Electric Power Research Institute, which is working with GM on plug-ins. He says most power plants have been built to meet the peak demand for electricity, usually during the afternoon in the summertime, when everyone is blasting their air-conditioning.
Mr. MARK DUVALL (Electric Power Research Institute): So the utilities have to build these big, powerful grid systems simply to handle the few hours a year where we're at peak, and the rest of the time those assets aren't fully utilized.
DWYER: So Duvall says plug-ins make good business sense for utility companies, but only if those plug-ins are charged during non-peak hours. That's the hard part. Cars will have to communicate with the grid to determine how much power they need, and the grid will communicate back to determine when and at what rate to supply that power.
Duvall says making a smarter grid will cost billions of dollars for utility companies, though he says that's an investment the utilities would make with or without plug-in vehicles, but the car companies are likely to want that investment right away.
Plug-ins are expected to be in showrooms two years from now, and GM is even hoping that people who drive plug-ins can get a special discount rate on electricity. These vehicles will likely cost several thousand dollars more than standard vehicles, and the company wants as many financial incentives as possible to lure in buyers. But of course the utilities still need to make money from the electricity they sell, so the interests of the two industries won't always be aligned. Mark Duvall from the electric industry says so far the collaboration is going smoothly.
Mr. DUVALL: The idea is to keep the processes open and as inclusive as possible and make sure that the needs of both parties are being met as we roll out plug-in hybrid vehicles, and there should be no real reason that the two industries should be divided.
DWYER: But Duvall says he is prepared for some bumps in the road as the two industries work out how to switch cars from gas to electricity. For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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