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Avista takes a test drive into a more electric future

Hugh Imhof of Avista pulls out of the parking lot at the wheel of a hybrid electric vehicle recently. Avista owns two plug-in hydrids. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
Hugh Imhof of Avista pulls out of the parking lot at the wheel of a hybrid electric vehicle recently. Avista owns two plug-in hydrids. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

By the end of the year, Nissan will launch the Leaf – an all-electric, five-passenger sedan with the ability to travel 100 miles between charges.

The car’s pending release is creating a flurry of interest. Among those paying attention: Avista Corp. and other electric utilities.

“As fuel prices rise, we think that more and more people will be looking at electric vehicles or hybrid-electrics,” said Dave Holmes, Avista’s manager of applied research and development. “We’re trying to get an idea of how this might affect our system.”

As part of its research, Avista bought two plug-in hybrids for its fleet. Over the past 10 months, Avista employees have driven more than 10,000 miles in the modified Toyota Priuses, which are plugged in at night to recharge a lithium-ion battery in the trunk.

Electric cars and plug-in hybrids account for a tiny fraction of vehicles on the road. In Avista’s service area, Holmes estimates that 100 or fewer are in regular use.

But that could change if prices start to drop. (Nissan hasn’t released a sales price for the Leaf, but industry estimates are around $40,000.) Automakers are gambling that electric vehicles will eventually appeal to mainstream drivers. Next year, Chevy will release the Volt, a plug-in hybrid that can go 40 miles on a charge before switching to gasoline.

As Holmes contemplates a possible future filled with residential garages equipped with battery rechargers, he wonders: How will it affect Avista’s electric load?

It’s a question shared by other utilities. “Our No. 1 job is providing reliable service, so we don’t want any surprises,” said Rick Tempchin, acting executive for retail energy services at the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade association in Washington, D.C.

The industry is working with car dealers to get a better sense of who buys electric vehicles. Consumer habits also are important. About two-thirds of electric cars will be recharged at home.

“The theory, which we hope will be translated into reality, is that most of the charging will be done overnight,” said James Owen, an Edison Electric Institute spokesman. “If you’re doing it during off-peak hours, you can use the utility’s excess capacity.”

Recharging the battery itself isn’t a big drain on the system, said Avista’s Holmes. On an annual basis, an all-electric car uses about as much electricity as three plasma TVs.

“But if everyone goes home and plugs in their electric car at 5 p.m., it might create some havoc for us,” he said.

Avista’s electric use hits a peak in the late afternoon, when people get home from work. They’re switching on lights, turning up thermostats and putting dinner in the oven. If a whole neighborhood plugged in their cars during a peak-use time, Avista might have to upgrade transmission systems to accommodate the short-term surge in demand.

“Ideally, we’d want people to charge after 9 p.m.,” Holmes said.

Meanwhile, Avista’s two plug-in hybrids have become a popular part of the company’s fleet. Employees drive them to cross-town meetings, and show them off at school career fairs.

The hybrids have “Run by the Sun” emblazoned on the side. Avista installed solar panels at its corporate headquarters to generate electricity that offsets the energy used during battery recharges.

“We’re building employee and customer awareness of electric cars,” Holmes said. “It’s a viable way to offset reliance on foreign oil, and to reduce energy consumption.”

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