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Utility will put Ford’s plug-in hybrid to test

DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. and Southern California Edison will team up to test rechargeable hybrid vehicles and hasten mass production of the new technology.

The California utility, which serves 13 million people in 11 central, coastal and Southern California counties outside Los Angeles, will get a Ford plug-in hybrid vehicle by the end of this year and as many as 20 by some time in 2009 to test durability, range and impact on the power grid, said Susan M. Cischke, Ford senior vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering.

Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally and other company executives were in California on Monday for the announcement, which Cischke says is a unique partnership between a power provider and an automaker that should help bring plug-in hybrids to market more quickly.

Plug-in hybrids generally have batteries that power an electric motor, with an internal combustion engine for use when the batteries run low. The batteries can be recharged by plugging them into a standard wall outlet.

Southern California Edison will help Ford by placing the cars with consumers and collecting data, Cischke said.

“They have the wire-side knowledge about the grid and all the issues there,” she said. “By partnering with these two industries … we’re hoping that it does accelerate the commercialization and certainly drive some of the cost issues down.”

Power shortages have been an issue in Southern California Edison’s highly populated service area. The company is under a state mandate to build five power plants that would fire up during peak energy use periods. The plants would help avoid projected energy shortages.

Many automakers have plug-in hybrids that are similar to Ford’s experimental vehicles, but mass production has been held back by costs and battery technology that limit the vehicles’ range. Manufacturers are racing to bring the technology to market as consumers seek alternatives to traditional engines and high gasoline prices.

“We see electricity as itself an alternative fuel in support of transportation,” said John Bryson, chairman of Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison.

Bryson said the collaboration will allow Ford and the utility to see how technology that has been tested in the laboratory works in the real world. He said plug-in hybrids have the potential to put the power grid to better use, for example, by charging vehicles during overnight hours when electricity demand is lower.

Ford, Cischke said, already is testing two plug-in hybrids in its Dearborn labs that are based on the Escape, a small sport utility vehicle that Ford offers as a gas-electric hybrid.

Cischke said it’s still too early to predict when Ford might mass-produce the cars.

“That’s one of the reasons for this program, to gather more data and fully understand the customer usage part,” she said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is interested in the tests because plug-in hybrid batteries could reduce the need for additional generators. The batteries could store electricity generated at off-peak hours and feed it back to power companies during peak use times, Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff said Monday.

“If you could have thousands or millions of plug-in hybrids providing these services instead, you could take generators out of that role,” Wellinghoff said.