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Plugging in Vermont's future

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Posted on June 23, 2011 |
By Andrew Stein



car5735.jpg
ADAM LOUGEE, LEFT, Kevin Lehman and Kevin Behm of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission stand next to the organization’s plug-in hybrid car. The car is capable of getting more than 100 miles to the gallon. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — Throughout Addison County, residents might notice a blue Toyota Prius with the license plate “PLUG IN.” That’s the new plug-in hybrid vehicle that the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) is using to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, cut costs and, planners hope, help drive Vermont into the future.

With Department of Energy funding that stems from President Obama’s goal to put 1 million plug-in vehicles on American roads by 2015, the planning commission recently converted  a 2008 Prius into a plug-in hybrid vehicle by installing a larger 5-kWh battery. ACRPC officials also plan to install two charging stations this summer on the east side of their Seminary Street headquarters in Middlebury. 

The end result?

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“The car can get over 100 miles per gallon,” said ACRPC energy planner Kevin Lehman.

That point is important considering Vermont’s transportation sector devours more petroleum and produces more carbon dioxide than any other facet of the state’s economy. According to a Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) study, transportation accounts for 33 percent of Vermont’s total energy use and contributes 44 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases.

To deal with this issue, planning commissions across the state are searching for low-carbon and energy-efficient solutions to reduce the impact of the transportation system on the environment and economy.

One concept that has been gaining momentum across the country is the large-scale production of electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them.

Planners at ACRPC had initially hoped to work with other regional planning commissions to begin putting such infrastructure in place.

“The original vision was to have all the regional planning commissions collaborate to get a plug-in hybrid and a couple of charging stations, so that then we could drive to each other’s offices, plug our cars in and charge them up (and start creating a network of infrastructure),” said ACRPC Assistant Director Kevin Behm. “But we were the only ones that actually went ahead with that proposal.”

Now, ACRPC hopes to reduce emissions and cut costs by using the car for work-related purposes. According to Lehman, if the planners use the plug-in to drive a total of 12,000 miles a year, a pace they are currently maintaining, they’ll save an estimated $1,500. This number is based on the IRS standard rate of reimbursement of 51 cents a mile, which the commission had paid each of its employees for the cost of travel.

The planning commission also received federal aid for the full $10,000 cost of conversion. So while the plug-in might save ACRPC money, a similar conversion might not produce the same savings for the average Vermonter. If this technology grows in popularity, however, its mass production could drive down costs.

The planning commission also believes that the car will drastically reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculation that a gallon of gas produces 19.4 pounds of CO2 (the carbon from the gas blends with oxygen in the air to produce CO2 that weighs more than the original 6.3-pound weight of the gas), Lehman estimates that the plug-in will decrease ACRPC CO2 emissions by 5,850 pounds.

With what Lehman refers to as a conservative mpg estimate of 75 mpg, the plug-in will produce about 3,100 pounds of CO2 at 12,000 miles. For an idea of what this number means, an above-average-fuel-efficiency car that gets 26 mpg produces 8,954 pounds of CO2 from 12,000 miles of driving.

Furthermore, a Carnegie Mellon University study found that plug-in hybrids are capable of producing 7-12 percent less CO2 than the average hybrid.

But a plug-in’s CO2 reduction is contingent upon where its electricity comes from. If it uses electricity derived solely from coal, its carbon footprint will be significantly higher than a typical hybrid’s. If the plug-in uses low carbon sources of energy such as wind, solar or hydro, the plug-in will have a smaller carbon footprint than the normal hybrid. 

THE FUTURE

The planners at ACRPC see their new plug-in and upcoming charging stations as the potential beginning of something huge.

“Electricity will drive a car,” said Behm. “But people have been driving on gas for so long that they don’t even realize that it’s an option for the future.”

Due to big tax rebates, subsidies and a fertile economic climate, thousands of charging stations are scheduled to be up and running come 2012 in states such as California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Companies like Nissan are claiming that some of these charging stations will be able to charge cars up to 80 percent capacity in just a half-hour’s time.

This massive infrastructure project will make driving new all-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric much more feasible. Most of these cars average about 100 miles a battery load, and the all-electric Tesla Roadster averages 200 miles a load and accelerates from 0-60 mph in less than 4 seconds, reported plugincars.com — a leading source of information on the electric vehicle industry.

But without adequate infrastructure, electric vehicles are impractical and right now the Northeast is far behind the Western and Southern U.S.

“None of this will work without the proper infrastructure and we’d like to play a role in that infrastructure, but we’re just one entity with limited funding,” said Lehman.

Without the necessary infrastructure,  people get what is referred to as “range anxiety.”

 “People are concerned about how far can I go on my charged battery because I need to find a place to plug in,” said Behm.

Another variable that might worry Vermonters is that batteries don’t function as well in the cold, and Vermont winters are a hostile environment for a battery.

One prospect, however, that state planners, engineers and academics are excited about is called “vehicle-to-grid.” If Vermont had hundreds of charging stations with plug-ins and electric vehicles hooked up, the cars’ batteries could be used to store energy. Then, with effective communication and the proper controls in place, utility companies would be able to draw energy from these storage devices in times of need.

“The problem is that most of these cars will be plugged in at night and that’s not peak hours,” said Behm.

“But if the infrastructure ends up being at a lot of employer locations, there could be a large number of vehicles plugged in during the day,” added Lehman.

This idea of vehicle-to-grid relies on what is called a “smart grid” using “smart meters.” These smart meters would allow homeowners and utility companies to calculate their energy use in real time, rather than having a utility employee read the meter once a month.

Such technology might go as far as to charge homeowners higher or lower rates at different points in the day and would allow homeowners to more easily trade energy back to the grid, whether through a solar panel, a car battery or some other form of energy storage or production. Communication would be two-way and every entity tied into the grid would be better informed about the grid’s energy use and production — hence the name smart grid.

But before a concept like vehicle to grid can be implemented, said the planners, Vermont and the Northeast will need federal funding and a commitment from the people.

“Putting in two charging stations is certainly not the end game, it’s just the beginning,” said Lehman.

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com

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