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March 23, 2012

Electrifying Utility Fleets

Via Motors EV pick up truck

Electric vehicles for an electric utility? That makes sense.

Pacific Gas and Electric, one of California's largest utilities, has announced a first-of-its-kind shift to electric vehicles that will put plug-in pickups into service. With PG&E teaming with VIA Motors, EV advocates believe this will set a precedent for fleets everywhere as companies, utilities, and municipalities search for ways to free themselves from gas prices and reduce climate-changing emissions.

"Utility companies are perfect for fleet electrification," said Gina Coplon-Newfield, the Sierra Club's Senior Campaign Representative for Electric Vehicles. "Most of their vehicles are small to medium sized, drive less than 100 miles each day, and have a central place where they can re-charge."

The utility began its partnership with VIA in 2008, which has now delivered three electric pickups called eREVs, or "extended-range electric vehicles," that will help the utility get off oil -- it will even provide mobile, on-site power for small-scale outages that require immediate attention. Kind of like the Chevy Volt, these eREV trucks run 40 miles on a battery before switching to gas. Batteries have 15 kilowatts of capacity, resembling a generator for a medium-sized home.

Later this year, PG&E, which has about 3,000 pick-up trucks, will begin purchasing up to 400 of these vehicles each year at an annual savings of thousands of dollars per truck. With each truck averaging 12,000 miles a year, the utility believes these battery-powered vehicles could reduce emissions by up to 77 percent.

"A utility company is well-poised to test how much electricity they need to charge their EVs, when is the most efficient and most inexpensive time to charge them, and what kind of infrastructure upgrades they need for both the charging units and the increased grid capacity," said Coplon-Newfield. "And we're glad to know that as the grid gets smarter with more renewable energy sources, these trucks will get cleaner over the course of their lifetime."

The utility's fleet managers are probably just as excited: expected fuel cost savings could reach $7,000 per vehicle, PG&E reps said at a Detroit auto show earlier this year.

PG&E already has more than 1,000 alternative-fuel cars in its fleet, but this first step toward plug-ins may well lead to larger electrification down the line. Several other utility company have begun investing in EVs. PPL Utilities purchased 64 EVs for its fleet last year. Duke Energy has purchased 10 Ram 1500 plug-in hybrid EV pick-up trucks and five plug-in Toyota Priuses, and has plans to expand. Other types of industries with vehicle fleets could realize huge cost and emissions savings with EVs as well, especially with some help from the Obama administration.

Want to learn more about EVs? Visit the Sierra Club's Go Electric Campaign.

-- Brian Foley/image: VIA Motors

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