Plug-in hybrids: a here-and-now alternative

The solution to the nation's emerging oil crisis may be sitting quietly in Ron Gremban's garage. It gets 80 to 100 miles to the gallon, he says. And if you don't go too fast, driving that gallon's worth of distance could cost $1 or less.

Officially, it's called a "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle" or PHEV. But think of it as a Toyota Prius with an electrical cord.

By charging the car at night, Mr. Gremban, who lives in the San Francisco area, uses cheap off-peak power-plant capacity. That extra juice lets him tootle around town using the car's electric motor for 50 to 60 miles without requiring the hybrid's gasoline motor to turn itself on. One auto critic who tested a plug-in Prius recently reported that in normal driving, not trying to go easy on the throttle, he would still have to fill up the tank just once in 5-1/2 months.

With gasoline hovering near $3 a gallon, several companies are beginning to back the idea of plugging cars into the electrical grid. The technology is also winning some surprising endorsements.

Energy hawks like R. James Woolsey, former director of central intelligence, touts the PHEV as a here-and-now technology to answer the nation's needs. So does Set America Free, another group of energy security experts.

"It's like having a second small fuel tank in your car," says Felix Kramer, founder of Cal-cars, a nonprofit tech group in the Bay Area. "You fill it at home by plugging it into the socket at night - and it gives you transportation around town for the equivalent of less than $1 a gallon."

It was Cal-cars that Gremban hooked up with to modify his Toyota Prius. The hybrid got more batteries, a new circuit board, a charger - and a power cord to plug into the garage wall socket at night.

Modifying the car meant ignoring Toyota statements that the Prius wasn't practical as a PHEV. It also worries some environmentalists. They warn that shifting from gasoline to electricity generated by coal would harm the environment.

But on a national basis, with electricity generated by a variety of sources, not just coal, PHEVs represent far lower carbon-dioxide emissions - and far greater fuel efficiency - than a gasoline car, counters Mr. Kramer of Cal-cars.

Other companies and cities are also showing signs of interest. For example:

• In Austin, Texas, the city utility has an incentive program for consumers willing to plug in at night to absorb cheap off-peak wind power generated for a few cents per kilowatt hour.

• Edrive Systems, a private Los Angeles company, plans to offer by early next year an aftermarket kit that converts a Toyota Prius into a PHEV. Target price for the under-the-hood makeover: About $12,000.

• DaimlerChrysler has been testing its Sprinter PHEV, a commercial van, in Germany. The low-pollution, high-mileage vans are expected to arrive soon in the United States for more evaluation in cooperation with the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry group.

• The Advanced Hybrid Vehicle Development Consortium, a trade association formed last month by a utility and manufacturers of electrical components, hopes to make it easier for automakers to evaluate PHEV parts.

Perhaps the most important development is that automakers are increasingly open-minded about hybrid technology. Last week, Hyundai said it was shifting its focus from hydrogen fuel-cell research to hybrids. Also this month, Audi, Volkswagen, and Porsche jumped on the hybrid bandwagon.

Such a switch in thinking opens the door to PHEVs, Kramer says. "We hope to see a major automaker sign up to make these before too long. It's just what this country needs."

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