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SDG & E; Test-Driving Vehicles That Power Up at Wall Sockets

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. is testing and promoting plug-in gas-electric cars to drive customer demand for such vehicles, especially among businesses with large fleets.

“Our hope is to gather enough customer interest that car manufacturers would start to include these options,” said Rick Morrow, SDG & E;’s vice president of customer services over major markets. Morrow oversees the Clean Transportation Program, which the utility created last year.

SDG & E; last week modified two Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles so that they can be plugged into a standard electric outlet for recharging.

The event took place at the San Diego Regional Transportation Center on July 18, complete with a number of politicians touting cleaner energy and a live demonstration of a hybrid conversion.

SDG & E; is test-driving plug-in vehicles to see how efficiently they run compared with before the conversion in hopes of adopting greener practices for its own 5,800-unit fleet used by employees.

Both types of hybrids run on a combination of gas and electricity, but the plug-in version , which carmakers aren’t expected to begin producing for a couple of years , can run longer on electricity before resorting to gas.

Reports say plug-in vehicles can drive 40 or more miles before using gas, ultimately getting 80-100 miles per gallon.

The plug-in hybrids are said to need about half the gas to go as far as a standard hybrid.

The main holdup for car manufacturers issuing more hybrids is a reliable, affordable battery.


Good Intentions

SDG & E;, whose parent company is San Diego-based Sempra Energy, says its motive for the recent production is purely green , as in the environment.

In fact, a 1982 state law separated targets for utility revenue and electricity usage, meaning greater efficiency can boost profits.

Frequent rate adjustments mean utility companies can collect no more or less than is necessary to run the business and provide a fair return to investors, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

The vehicle test might sound unusual for a utility company to conduct, but Northern and Central California’s Pacific Gas & Electric teamed with Mountain View-based Google last month for a similar test in an effort to give some validity to the plug-in vehicles.

Jim Ruby, fleet manager at UC San Diego, was among those who attended the SDG & E; conversion in San Diego.

Converting one Prius cost $12,000, so Ruby said he’ll wait for the cost to come down before adding plug-in cars to his 700-unit fleet , unless he can secure grant money for it.


On A Mission

But Ruby isn’t waiting on car manufacturers to begin reducing emissions at UCSD. He’s been the driving force for two years in shifting UCSD’s fleet away from petroleum.

The university already has 34 Toyota Prius and six Ford Escape hybrids, with three more hybrids on order.

Ruby has eliminated the Ford Ranger trucks and Astro vans that used to guzzle gas running around campus. Groundskeepers now use 228 electric golf carts, which don’t use gas at all.

Shuttle buses at UCSD use bio-diesel fuel and others use compressed natural gas.

“I wish I could say there’s one silver bullet, but there’s not,” Ruby said of the various methods the campus fleet is employing to go gradually green. “I’m trying to get us off petroleum.”

Ruby said he’s not sure how much money the university has saved by using the alternative energies, but he plans to start tracking it.

At SDG & E;, 1,200 of the company’s 5,800 vehicles use compressed natural gas, said spokeswoman Jennifer Briscoe.


Alternative Energy

Briscoe said 6 percent of the power SDG & E; produces comes from alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar or biomass, which is energy created from dead crops, trees or landfill rubbish.

SDG & E; said it will be able to meet the requirements set forth in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive order last year that holds that California must produce a minimum of 20 percent of the bio-fuels it uses by 2010.

Briscoe said 15 percent of SDG & E;’s electric power will come from alternative sources as soon as some contracts are approved by the state.

Results of SDG & E;’s plug-in hybrid study will be released next year, said Morrow.

“It’s very important for us to have done these tests ourselves,” Morrow said, adding that SDG & E; has not calculated the company’s potential savings if it uses plug-in hybrids. “We wanted to test the applicability of the technology for our own fleet and others, as well as promote this to schools, research groups and others so they can make informed decisions.”

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