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Utilities vow to prep infrastructure for plug-in cars

Utilities say they need to invest in infrastructure to ease the transition of plug-in electric vehicles with incentives for off-peak charging and charging stations in public places.

DETROIT--There's a great deal of interest from consumers in plug-in vehicles but electricity utilities say they need to prepare even before electric cars start to plug in.

Industry association the Edison Electric Institute on Wednesday issued a pledge that its members will take steps to smooth the transition to electrically fueled vehicles. The chairman of the institute and CEO of utility DTE Energy, Anthony Earley, voiced the industry's support for plug-in vehicles here at the Business of Plugging In Conference.

"The industry's challenge will be to effectively manage this transition," Earley said. "We recognize that now is the time. After years of debate, the electric vehicle is ready for prime time."

In a DOE-sponsored program, a number of utilities are testing the mileage improvements and impact on the grid of plug-in electric vehicles. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The statement underscores the growing interconnectedness between the auto and utility industries that's occurring as a wave of plug-in electric cars approach car dealerships.

Plug-in hybrid or pure-electric cars promise to be cheaper to fuel up--the equivalent of $1 per gallon, Earley said. But there are a number of barriers to widespread adoption, including higher upfront costs and the potential impact on the electricity grid.

Utility executives say that adding just a few plug-in electric vehicles to an area could overload the local distribution circuit, particularly if drivers install faster 220-volt chargers at home. There have also been concerns that fueling millions of vehicles from the grid will require construction of more power plants to meet the added demand.

Utilities and auto executives say there is sufficient demand to charge vehicles in the near term with existing power plants if cars are charged at off-peak times, typically overnight. But there needs to be some products and policy changes to ensure that off-peak charging takes place en masse.

In its pledge, the Edison Electric Institute said that they will seek to install more charging stations in public places. Also, it will encourage development of policies that give consumers cheaper electricity rates at off-peak times.

Utilities are now working in a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored program to test the impact of plug-in electric vehicles. The Edison Electric Institute also said that utilities will establish customer support and education.