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Electric companies need upgrades for plug-in cars

Jan 13, 2010 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Brent Snavely Detroit Free Press

Preparing America's neighborhoods to handle the additional power load that electric vehicles are expected to require is among the challenges facing the utility and automotive industries as plug-in electric vehicles are introduced, DTE Energy Chairman Tony Early said today.

Almost every major automaker plans to introduce an electric car over the next three years even though many questions about the technology remain.

Early said nation's power plants and major power lines are capable of providing adequate electricity to meet the additional demand that plug-in electric vehicles for the foreseeable future. But in many cases, the power lines in neighborhoods will need to be upgraded.

With most plug-in electric vehicles expected to cost $40,000 or more, "We can pretty much guess what neighborhoods are going to buy these vehicles. It's going to be upper end neighborhoods," Early said during a panel discussion on electric vehicles in Detroit hosted by Inforum.

That means that the owners of plug-in electric vehicles will live in concentrated areas.

And so the local infrastructure will really be a challenge," Early said. "You will see breakers trip and you will see transformers burn out."

In addition to that challenge, panelists from GM, Chrysler and Ford acknowledged that many other challenges exist, including finding ways to reduce the cost of the lithium-ion batteries that will power electric vehicles and the need for common standards for the size of the plug.

Still, a consensus emerged among panelists that all of those problems can be solved.

In fact, this year General Motors plans to introduce the extended-range Chevrolet Volt and Ford Motor plans to introduce an electric version of its Transit Connect commercial van.

"We've invested about $700 million in eight different facilities to support the Volt alone, including our battery assembly plant in Brownstown," said Michael Robinson, vice president for environment, energy and safety for GM.

"This is an idea whose time has come and the technology is emerging to match it," Early said.

Contact BRENT SNAVELY: 313-222-6512 or bsnavely@freepress.com