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Cities Join Push for Plug-In Hybrids

January 25, 2006|Nick Timiraos | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A partnership of cities, municipal utilities and organizations -- including the cities of Los Angeles and Irvine -- kicked off a national campaign Tuesday urging automakers to build plug-in hybrid vehicles.

This next-generation type of "green" transportation uses an additional battery to boost mileage and allows drivers to plug their gasoline-electric cars into standard electrical outlets for recharging.

The technology is designed to appeal to urban commuters who routinely travel relatively short distances in heavy traffic.

Once charged, the hybrid relies solely on electricity for 25 to 35 miles or more and can achieve fuel efficiency exceeding 80 miles per gallon. That makes the vehicle ideal for city travel, where stop-and-go and slow-moving traffic is common.

"It's 95% the same car," said Edward Kjaer of Southern California Edison. "You're just putting a new battery and charger on board."

Austin, Texas, will lead the effort by purchasing 600 of the hybrids when they become commercially available.

Los Angeles and Irvine are joining Austin in the Plug-In Partners national campaign, along with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and municipal utilities in Anaheim, Burbank and Pasadena.

"If you will build hybrid plug-in vehicles, Americans will buy them," Austin Mayor Will Wynn said at a news conference announcing the initiative, which includes a partnership between the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent research group, and automaker DaimlerChrysler to research and test a prototype van.

Proponents contend that the technology curbs emissions that harm the environment and reduces dependence on foreign oil imports.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) hailed the technology as a "silver bullet for our nation's energy and transportation needs."

But automakers have been reluctant to build plug-in hybrids, arguing that the additional battery results in increased costs. Marketing campaigns for hybrid vehicles have promoted the fact that, unlike the electric vehicles of the 1990s, hybrids do not have to be plugged in.

A spokesman for Toyota Motor Corp., Bill Kwong, said his company had no plans to build plug-in hybrids and questioned the environmental benefits since the vehicles could use electricity generated from coal- or other fuel-burning power plants.

Energy Control Systems Engineering of Monrovia has taken the lead in converting Toyota's Prius hybrid for use as a plug-in.

DaimlerChrysler, the only auto company that has manufactured such a vehicle, uses its fleet of 40 plug-in hybrids to improve battery development for other hybrids, spokesman Nick Cappa said.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced Tuesday that the Bush administration would make $119 million available for hydrogen fuel cell research over the next five years.

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