State’s utilities gear up to meet energy challenges of Chevy Volt

October 30, 2010
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LANSING — The Chevy Volt, General Motors’ first electric vehicle, will be released in Michigan at the end of 2010. But is Michigan ready?

“We are going to be ready for the vehicles coming out for this first round,” said Tremaine Phillips, special assistant to the director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

The first cohort will be only a few vehicles, which shouldn’t create any significant additional demand on Michigan’s power grid, Phillips said.

The major limitation for such vehicles lies in a lack of charging stations throughout Michigan, Phillips said. Many public entities such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as universities, are seeking grants to cover the cost of setting up charging stations.

The Public Service Commission already has a couple of charging stations set up outside its building for electric car users, said Judy Palnau, communications director. GM and the Lansing Board of Water and Light also want to move forward with installing charging stations, she said.

Making stations available would help alleviate the “range anxiety” electric vehicle owners face, Palnau said. The Volt can go about 40 miles before its gasoline backup takes over, and having public stations to recharge on the road will give drivers peace of mind.

The Volt takes about 10 hours to fully recharge using a standard 120-volt outlet like the ones you find in your home, according to GM. It takes about three hours for the car to charge using a 240-volt outlet. Ideally, Phillips said, charging stations will eventually be set up at all highway rest areas statewide, but that won’t happen until demand for the vehicles is assessed.

Michigan is one of three main target markets for electric vehicles because the state’s 16 battery plants, as well as the Big Three U.S. automakers, make it an obvious place to test some of the challenges associated with the new cars, Phillips said. The other targets are California and Washington, D.C., which were picked largely due to their demand for such vehicles, Phillips said.

Owners can expect to see higher electricity bills, said Chris Detjen, manager of public policy programs at NextEnergy in Detroit. But savings from not purchasing as much gas will almost always offset these costs, he said.

The costs of electric car operation will depend on a number of factors, such as distance driven, model and electrical utility provider, Detjen said. Both DTE Energy and Consumers Energy have special rate programs for electric vehicles, but not every utility company in Michigan does, he said.

Owners who live in an area serviced by DTE and who signed up for the company’s electric vehicle rate can expect to pay 7.7 cents per kilowatt hour during off-peak times from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday and the entire weekend, Detjen said. The rate increases to 18 cents per kilowatt hour during peak times.

Burning a 60-watt light bulb for one hour uses about 0.06 kilowatts of electricity. Using the same bulb for 1,000 hours would use 60 kilowatts.

“After you’ve fully depleted the Volt’s battery, you’ll need at most 10 kilowatts of electricity to fully recharge it. That means you’ll pay about 77 cents per full charge off-peak and about $1.80 on-peak,” he said.

“The average Volt driver should use up about 2,520 kilowatts of electricity in a year to charge the car. That’s about what the average household uses to run its clothes dryer.”

For drivers who expect to use their electric vehicles a lot, DTE offers a flat electric vehicle rate of $40 a month for unlimited charging, Detjen said. Consumer’s Energy has similar options, including a flat rate plan for up to 300 kilowatt hours a month, he said.

“Off-peak charging is key to the success of the vehicle,” because it will help reduce stress on the state’s power grid, especially on hot summer days, Palnau said.

A taskforce of utility companies, car makers and other groups are looking at the possibility of vehicle-to-grid transfers. This would allow the state grid to take power from the car and avoid a potential blackout when there are more vehicles being used.

The taskforce is also exploring vehicle-to-house transfers so owners could pull power from their car batteries if their house lost power, Palnau said.

DELEG’s Phillips said Michigan has made electric vehicles a priority because “it is the right thing to do in terms of diversifying off of fossil fuels.

“Michigan has a chance to really take hold of this project and be a center point. It will be an economic driver for the state.”

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