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Plug-in hybrids have miles to go for widespread use

Many major automakers have unveiled vehicles at the L.A. Auto Show that are within a year or two of the showroom, but a lot has to change for such cars to be common sights in the U.S. private fleet.

December 07, 2009|Michael Hiltzik

Kramer says the federal government's best option is to provide financial incentives for EV buyers. By that light, the stimulus package, which includes tax credits of up to $7,500 for buyers of the first 200,000 vehicles from each manufacturer, will help drive the country toward President Obama's goal of 1 million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015.

Even that, however, would be "a drop in the bucket" of what's needed to turn a significant percentage of the nation's 250 million vehicles green, Kramer says. Making a dent in the U.S. thirst for oil will require retrofitting existing gas guzzlers with hybrid drives, a technology he says is available today.

The biggest infrastructure change involves the nation's electric grid. People charging cars in their garages may need to upgrade their home circuits, which often requires municipal permits, building inspections and other headaches.

Government agencies will have to start making rules now to goad employers into installing charge stations for employees to top off their batteries during the work day, and owners of apartment buildings into providing chargers for tenants. Green car advocates recall with shudders the roadblocks that landlords in some cities placed in the way of cable TV companies during the original rollout of that technology years ago.

As the PUC has learned, finding the right policy is no simple feat. One might think that, in the interest of encouraging all car buyers to consider plug-ins, electric utilities should be permitted to let 'er rip -- invest heavily in system upgrades like new neighborhood transformers, and put the tab on everyone's electric bill.

That's the position of General Motors. But GM wants to sell cars, so the less its buyers pay to install charging boxes for their Volts, the better.

Not so fast, says the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, which says it's standing up for all ratepayers, not just early adopters with EVs. TURN told the PUC that allowing the utilities to charge the whole rate base for EV-oriented upgrades would encourage them to be "profligate" in spending "ostensibly to meet EV loads," which may never actually materialize. The concern is that drivers of gas cars, even thrifty ones, might end up subsidizing their super-green neighbors.

"We're in the early days here," says Pedro Pizarro, Edison's executive vice president for power operations. "All of us in the market -- cities, utilities, auto manufacturers, auto dealers -- need to figure it out together."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com, read earlier columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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