While Toyota is given much of the credit for today’s market for hybrid electric vehicles, public transit agencies deserve equal acclaim for advancing the technology. They could also play in encouraging consumers in the future to buy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) by offering free vehicle charging.
For every Prius that you see driving in the HOV lane, there’s at least another hybrid-electric or all-electric bus shuttling dozens of people to work. City and regional muni systems have embraced hybrid electric buses because of their ability to capture energy from regenerative braking. This enables them to reduce their fuel consumption (often diesel) in urban areas where air quality is a priority.
The federal government is supporting municipal agencies’ pioneering work in the use of electric and alternative fuel vehicles to the tune of $300 million. Some of this Recovery Act money will be used to set up vehicle charging stations and test converted plug-in hybrid vehicles.
PHEVs and all-electrics are well suited to vehicles that travel short distances and are refueled (or in this case recharged) in a central location, like transit agency staff who work around airports or travel short distances, like everyone’s favorite, the ticket writers of the parking authority.
Park and ride locations that add charging stations could provide a double benefit — getting more people on public transit, and eliminating fossil fuels from the commute to and from the parking lots. Public transit agencies in Ann Arbor and Portland are among those already considering adding charging stations. This would enable the entire commute — possibly of 100 miles — to be completed without direct burning of fossil fuels.
When vehicle to grid technology becomes commercialized, park and ride lots could save money and provide free parking. Plug-in expert Andy Frank of the University of California at Davis looked at the economics around BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) lots in the San Francisco Area and found that charging batteries off peak (like in the morning hours, and then drawing some of the energy back at peak times) would more than pay for the cost of the energy itself.
Frank said BART buys its energy in bulk two to three years in advance and always overpays for access to energy at peak times because it needs to keep the electric trains running. Tapping into vehicles as needed would allow BART to be more conservative in its energy purchases, saving the agency up to $4 million per year, according to Frank. When extra power is produced but not required, it would then be given to the vehicles for free as payback for access to the batteries.
It will take years to get to this point as battery technology is still unproven for frequent discharging of energy to the grid, and the technology for managing upstream electricity isn’t there yet. When vehicle to grid becomes a consumer application, thanks in part may need to be given to muni.