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TVA could handle charging of electric-powered cars

Jun 17, 2008 - Tom Humphrey -The Knoxville News - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sentinel, Tenn. - TVA Chairman Bill Sansom told a panel of congressmen Monday that the agency could easily handle future demand from electric-powered cars and offer a 20 percent discount -- so long as batteries are charged at night.

"If they wanted to plug in from noon to 6 p.m., that would be a challenge for us," Sansom said.

Sansom joined representatives of auto manufacturing companies, battery producers and others at a forum before three members of the TVA Congressional Caucus. The lawmakers were Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, both of Tennessee, and Democrat Robert "Bud" Cramer of Alabama.

TVA typically has excess electricity generating capacity during evening hours, averaging at least 7,000 to 8,000 megawatts more than demand. Alexander said that excess evening capacity is "the single greatest untapped resource" of energy in the region.

The senator said a nuclear power plant produces about 1,100 megawatts per day, meaning "the equivalent of five, six or seven nuclear powers plants" is available at night. Alexander said he expects "tens of thousands of Tennesseans" to switch to vehicles at least partly powered by electricity within the next five years.

Sansom said TVA would operate more efficiently by using the excess capacity during evening hours because it costs money to shut down generating capacity when unneeded, then start the generators back up when peak demand hours approach.

Also, the TVA chairman said electricity can be produced for battery-powered vehicles using coal-burning generators with less carbon pollution than would be produced by gasoline-powered vehicles.

Cars produce about a ton of carbon in using 100 gallons of gasoline, typically traveling about 2,400 miles, he said. An electric-powered car would travel about 3,600 miles on electricity production that would generate a ton of carbon, he said.

Electricity distributors using TVA power are already running demonstration projects in Nashville and Bristol that provide customers with "smart meters" and charge them more for electricity used during peak demand hours and considerably less at night.

Prior to the forum, Alexander drove around Nashville streets in a Toyota Prius hybrid equipped with a special Lithium Ion Nanophosphate battery made by A123 Systems of Boston that was installed at a cost of $10,000. The Prius standard battery can drive only about a mile and a half on battery power alone, while the special battery gives it a 30-mile range on electricity without using gasoline.

Les Goldman, head of A123 Systems, estimated that the $10,000 cost can be cut in half as demand for the batteries increases, triggering "economies of scale" in production and as technology improves.

Goldman said that tests in Maryland, where electricity costs 11.7 cents per kilowatt, show the Prius with an A123 battery can be charged for a 30-mile trip with about 60 cents worth of electricity. Sansom said the figures would be lower in the TVA area, where the cost of electricity is about 8 or 9 cents.

Jack Sayed, speaking for Nissan North America, said Nissan expects to produce a hybrid car that can travel 100 miles solely on electric power by 2010. Alexander observed that such a car would effectively eliminate the need for gasoline by a majority of drivers in their day-to-day commuting.

Gordon said that he can envision a time when "you can plug in your house," charging a battery during nonpeak hours to run household appliances, heating and air conditioning on stored power during peak hours.

Alexander said running coal-fired generators at night will create more pollution and the federal government should offer tax incentives or grants to utilities for installation of equipment needed to reduce mercury, sulphur and nitrogen emissions.

New revenue TVA receives from selling electricity at night could also offset the cost of pollution-reduction equipment, he said.