John Freitag is the vice president of operations for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives
The little car that could
Co-op test of plug-in car finds the promise is real, but issues still exist
If you read the newspaper or watch the news regularly these days, you’re hearing about the coming wave of cars and trucks that will be powered by electricity. Some of these cars will be 100 percent electric vehicles, or EVs, like the Nissan Leaf. Others are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, that will operate on electricity or gasoline.
There are, however, a lot of questions about these vehicles. How will they perform? Will mileage estimates be accurate? Will they last or be really expensive to maintain? Will the batteries last? Will they pay for themselves? Will enough people buy them so the auto manufacturers can build them at reasonable prices?
If you’ve attended your electric cooperative’s annual meeting over the past couple of years, chances are you’ve seen the Illinois electric co-ops’ Toyota Prius PHEV. The vehicle has also been featured in pictures and articles in this magazine.
This car has been part of a U.S. Department of Energy study on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, in partnership with other electric co-ops around the country, since 2008. That’s when we converted our 2007 Prius to a plug-in hybrid car. Basically, we just added an additional lithium-ion battery pack. This battery weighs 180 pounds and it’s installed in the spare tire compartment. It is charged with electricity from a normal 120 volt outlet. This offers the possibility for greatly enhanced fuel mileage.
So, after two years of PHEV operation, what have we learned?
1. These vehicles perform great for the kind of driving that most folks do every day — going to work or school. Our PHEV has an electric range of about 40-50 miles or so, depending upon speed and type of driving, etc. This range gets most people where they need to go daily, then the battery can be recharged at home.
2. We’ve found the plug-in battery improves mileage at highway speeds, usually by 25 percent or so. But when we take a long trip, the battery is fully spent within 40-50 miles. Then our car operates like a normal Prius with an extra 180 pounds (the battery).
3. Attaining 100 miles per gallon with a Prius PHEV is possible. But only if the driver operates the car reasonably and the car is kept plugged in when it isn’t being operated. I tell people that with our Prius PHEV, 80 miles per gallon can be easily attained, without much change in driving style.
4. Cold weather is tough on all batteries, especially these hybrid batteries. We all have experienced some pretty cold weather the past two winters. Our PHEV is parked outdoors virtually 100 percent of the time. When operating our vehicles during the cold winter months, mileage suffers greatly — about 25 to 30 percent. The hybrid batteries seem to have survived the cold pretty well, but the mileage drops considerably in the winter.
5. The plug-in battery is only effective if it’s plugged in. It will be best for everyone if electric car charging is done off peak, when electricity usage is relatively low. For most people this is at night. This will help keep energy costs as low as possible.
6. So far, after two years of operation on the plug-in battery and three years on the regular Prius hybrid battery, everything seems normal. We’ve had no problems with these batteries and they still operate just like new.
7. Unfortunately, the “payback” for our project is incredibly long. We were an “early adapter” in using this technology. When these cars can be driven off a dealer’s lot, they’ll be more affordable and the payback should be more realistic.
Personally, I’ve also learned that my own driving style has changed over the past couple of years. I have now purchased a hybrid electric vehicle for my own, personal use. In town, I consciously try to drive in a way that maximizes the electric mode of the car. When I’m on the highway, I also drive the speed limit or close to it. The fuel mileage is greatly improved from my normal driving style of the past, and I’m probably safer!
John Freitag is the vice president of operations for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, 217-241-7973, www.aiec.coop.