While the economy continues to send shivers through various clean fuel sectors, California’s budding electric and natural gas transportation space remains healthy and optimistic, according to major utilities in the state. They told NGI that both the infrastructure and the vehicles (dedicated and converted) are taking shape in the nation’s most automobile-dense state.

As an example, a Plug-in Parade of 68 electric hybrid vehicles was held last Saturday in Santa Monica, CA, in a promotional drive through the seaside Los Angeles suburb. The sponsors, Plug In America, called it a “pre-inaugural” event to dramatize for Congress, the auto industry and the new Obama administration “the most fuel-efficient cars ever made.”

There are some 20,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles operating across many industries in Southern California, including transit buses, school buses, refuse trucks, street sweepers, city and private fleets, taxis and shuttles, according to Sempra Energy’s utilities unit spokesperson. Sempra’s Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) have 1,095 CNG vehicles in their fleets collectively. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has 1,200 natural gas vehicles (about 10% of its total fleet).

Sempra and 45 other utilities in California and around the nation are involved in a research and development program with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, CA, and General Motors on the integration of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to the grid, using the upcoming release of the Chevy Volt Extended Range Electric Vehicle (EREV) in 2010, and the Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid the following year.

Obviously, a lot will depend on what happens longer term to global fuel costs — where will the cost of oil and alternative fuels end up? For plug-ins, the advancement of heavy-duty long-range batteries will be a major area to watch in 2009. “These early release batteries will pave the way to continual improvements in battery technology and allow manufacturers to whittle away at the cost of these new generation batteries with volume, manufacturing efficiencies and continued technical improvements (aiming for an under-$300/kWh cost),” Sempra’s spokesperson said.

Last November Southern California Edison (SCE) announced what it called “a major milestone” in advanced battery performance. Through ongoing evaluation and tests at its Pomona, CA-based Electric Vehicle Technical Center, SCE said it demonstrated battery life performance equivalent to more than 180,000 miles in a commercial delivery van with minimal battery deterioration, noting that these batteries could power tomorrow’s plug-in vehicles.

“We support all low-emitting and cost-effective alternate fuel use for transportation to both wean the country off of oil and to reduce our nation’s greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions,” the Sempra spokesperson said. “Natural gas represents a useful transportation bridge fuel as other technologies reach commercial viability and should be one tool of our near-term transportation fuel plan.

“Longer term, we expect other technologies to gain a growing piece of the market but they are not yet commercially available.”

PG&E’s Jill Egbert, clean fuel transportation manager, said the San Francisco-based combination utility is trying all the technologies, “seeing what might work best for our customers and our fleet. We’re also looking to get feedback from the automotive industry as to what works and doesn’t work. They’re looking for real-world applications.”

Sempra utilities run a “clean transportation program,” providing customers information on equipment and infrastructure as mandated by the California Public Utilities Commission, the Sempra spokesperson said. The utilities are expanding the use of natural gas and electric vehicles with customer information, education programs and training to the general public, government agencies and fleet and station operators throughout Southern California.

In 2007 SoCalGas and SDG&E delivered 91 million therms to operators of natural gas vehicles — the equivalent of 73 million gallons of gasoline or enough gasoline to fuel more than 120,000 commuter vehicles for a year, resulting in the reduction of more than 3.78 million tons of GHG emissions, Sempra said.

“We have committed to replace our 450 passenger vehicles with alternative-fueled vehicles and reducing GHG emissions from fleet vehicles by about 15% by 2012,” said the Sempra spokesperson. Fuel delivered to natural gas vehicles (NGV) is the fastest growing market within the SoCalGas and SDG&E service territories, which collectively indicated they have more than 275 NGV fueling stations operating throughout Southern California; in the north, PG&E has 39 stations, 28 of which are open to the public.

While the auto industry is emphasizing that plug-ins ultimately offer customers a lot more, PG&E’s Egbert said her utility has both types of electric vehicles in its fleet. The plug-ins continue to get the most emphasis, she said, while acknowledging that there are no commercial models of plug-ins available in the U.S. market right now.

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier in January, China-based BYD Auto Co., introduced its advanced Fe lithium-iron battery and its new Duel Mode DM) plug-in hybrid system. Last fall billionaire Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. bought a 10% interest in BYD.

Meanwhile, Egbert said the losing California ballot measure (Proposition 10) heavily supported by T. Boone Pickens last November has given a big boost to natural gas vehicles. “It did a lot to bring natural gas to the forefront, and included all sorts of alternatives,” Egbert said. “We believe there is no one silver bullet in the clean transportation sector, so we need all of these alternative fuel technologies to make this work and help our customers. We are working with all organizations and automakers on the issue.”

Sempra’s utilities operate natural gas, hybrid-electric and biodiesel vehicles. They are currently running a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle conversion demonstration project for the Electric Transportation Program. So far its comparison of two plug-in hybrid conversions to their original performance showed a 60% increase in overall miles per gallon (mpg) for the plug-in hybrid.

“The vehicles did show the ability to achieve greater than 100 mpg for short periods under certain driving conditions,” said the Sempra spokesperson. “We’re also in discussions for coordinating an assessment fleet of all-electric vehicles in San Diego starting in 2010.”

Prices for original equipment manufactured plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevy Volt EREV, are in the $35,000-50,000 range, according to some of the utilities. They are expected to have fuel use ranges of more than 100 mpg when they come out in 2010.

“The Chevy Volt EREV will be an all-electric vehicle for the first 40 miles and then use gasoline for an onboard generator that will allow an addition 300-400 miles on the gasoline-generated electricity,” said the Sempra spokesperson. “Only an electric motor powers the wheels.”

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