Geisking Public Relations - Public Relations Specialist
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Premium mileage at a premium price, but worth it to some Prius owners 
John Hill,
Focus: Green Business

Who wouldn’t want a car that reaches 100 miles per gallon, reduces emissions and allows an average driver to commute without using a drop of gasoline?

Smart Motors of Madison caught the public’s eye this summer when it began modifying standard Toyota Prius hybrids with an add-on battery that turns the cars into plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The Toyota dealer has the Wisconsin contract to install the Hymotion LS Plug-in Module, a lithium-ion battery made by A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass.

The modified Priuses can travel 30 to 40 miles of all-electric driving after charging on a standard 120-volt outlet. John Dolan, Smart’s expert on hybrids, says he’s getting 100 miles per gallon driving the company’s demonstrator equipped with the plug-in system. “It’s almost a gasoline teetotaler,” he adds.

Smart Motors technicians trained with A123 for a week this spring to learn how to make the conversions. They can now complete an installation at the dealership in about four hours, Dolan says. The add-on battery can be used in 2004 to 2009 Priuses and does not affect the standard Toyota warranty. The modules meet the strictest emission and crash-test standards.

The modules are unlikely to become mass sellers. Their $10,395 price tag precludes this, although, Dolan points out, tax credits of $2,400 to $7,500 may be available to help defray some of the cost.

Madison is already a hybrid hotbed, Dolan says, and Smart, which has sold many of the 4,500 Priuses on Dane County roads, wants to be a part of the transition to plug-in hybrids. There’s a growing interest in plug-in hybids with Chevrolet, Toyota and Ford expected to introduce models in the next three years.

In March, President Barack Obama showed the federal government’s commitment to plug-in hybrids when he announced that $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds will be available for developing the technology. He set a goal of 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. The money, to be administered by the Department of Energy, will go for development of battery technology, manufacturing capacity and recycling capacity for lithium batteries.

One of Smart’s first customers for a plug-in module was the city of Columbus, one of 10 energy-independent model communities designated by Wisconsin. Steve Sobiek, Columbus’ economic development/energy sustainability director, says the city also has another converted plug-in Prius in its fleet as well as an all-electric mini-truck. “It’s part of the ‘25 by 25’ program, the commitment to produce 25 percent of the city’s electricity and transportation fuels from sustainable sources by the year 2025,” he says. “We want to encourage and educate people to utilize NEVs (low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles) and hybrids.”

Part of this effort includes installing the first public charging station system in Wisconsin. The first station was put in at the municipal garage last year and is open to the public. Two other stations have been added.

Madison Gas & Electric, the utility that serves Dane County, also is in the process of installing six public plug-in stations as a pilot project, according to Steve Kraus, MG&E communications director. “We’re in the business of selling electricity, so it makes sense to take the lead in this,” Kraus says.

One reason why the stations are important, Kraus explains, is that the lithium batteries work best when fully charged. That means a driver can charge the battery overnight at home and then recharge while at work, shopping or running errands.

“Madison already has an estimated 80 to 100 vehicles (plug-in hybrids or all-electric NEVs) that could use the stations,” Kraus says. A full charge at the stations takes about 60 cents worth of electricity, but drivers will be allowed to use them for free during the pilot project.

The day when many people drive to work on clean, electric power produced in Wisconsin and plug in to a charging station may not be too far down the road. 


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