Duke Energy, GM team up on electric cars

Duke Energy Corp. and the nation's largest car company are teaming up to smooth the way for a future of electric vehicles.

That future requires a revamped power system that can integrate a new breed of cars drawing massive amounts of electricity from the grid.

General Motors Corp. said the partnership, which also includes the Electric Vehicle Research Institute and other large utilities such as Southern California Edison, will deal with myriad complicated issues from tax incentives to where and when the cars can be recharged.

GM is working to bring the Chevrolet Volt rechargeable car to showrooms in late 2010. It's being designed to run on an electric motor powered by lithium-ion batteries. When fully charged, the car will be able to travel 40 miles on battery power. For longer trips, a small internal combustion engine will recharge the batteries to keep the Volt moving.

“This vehicle is real. It's coming into production,” said Britta Gross, a GM engineer. “We know that when the vehicle is in the showroom and ready for sale, it's got to work seamlessly with the infrastructure.”

Duke has been working on a new “smart grid” in Charlotte for several years with future widespread production of electric cars in mind.

The Charlotte-based utility has been installing two-way data communication devices on its power lines and new smart meters on selected Charlotte homes to research how it could work. It has retrofitted several Toyota Prius hybrids so the batteries can be recharged in home outlets.

The grid would allow two-way data communication with the new electric cars when they are plugged in. The system could signal when cheap power is available for the six- to eight-hour recharge time or draw unused juice from the car's battery to help meet high power demand on the grid – if the car's owner is out of town, for example.

“The electric vehicle is the consummate smart grid application,” said Mike Rowand, Duke's director of advanced customer technologies.

An electric car revolution would mean increased sales for power companies, he said. But the goal is for the cars to mostly recharge at night when demand is generally low, meaning higher profits with lower stress on the system.

The Volt likely will need about eight kilowatt-hours of energy to recharge, Gross said. The average Carolinas rate is about 7 cents per kilowatt hour, so it would cost the consumer less than 60 cents to drive the 40 miles.

GM and the utilities announced the partnership Tuesday at a conference on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in San Jose, Calif.

The speed of the recharging, the voltage, the amperage and other issues all have to be worked out, Gross said. The consortium also will address issues such as how apartment dwellers can charge their cars and where vehicles will be charged at work and on trips – and who pays for the electricity, Gross said. “We want this to sell in just huge volumes,” he said, “so we want to get it right.”

A team of GM engineers and designers is working on the Volt, hoping to be the leader in plug-in electric vehicles. Other automakers, including Toyota Motor Corp., are working on similar projects.

GM already is showing Volt prototypes to focus groups and testing a new generation of batteries. The car will be priced anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 – more expensive than most conventional cars.

The group, Gross said, likely will seek government tax incentives for buyers because of the benefits the cars might bring to society, such as lowered greenhouse gas emissions and reduced dependence on foreign oil.

The Associated Press contributed