The gentle hum of a Toyota Prius might not catch your attention on the streets of Madison, but the splash of green and graphics that read 'plug-in' might.
"We're going 23 miles per hour, and again, using strictly electricity" said Madison Gas and Electric's Steve Kraus, who took us on a tour in what's called a plug-in hybrid.
Last month, MG&E bought a plain Prius, a gas-electric hybrid in itself, but then took the idea a step further. "This vehicle has been retrofitted with an additional set of batteries that allow it to operate completely in electric mode," said Kraus.
Basically, just plug it into a standard 120 Volt electric outlet with an extension cord. After five hours, it will have a full charge. Then unplug and drive. Kraus said the range is about 30 miles before you have to go back to the gas/electric mix, which tends to me more fuel efficient in itself. If you manage to keep your commuting or errands below the 30 mile range, you could theoretically never need a drop of gas for the hybrid mode.
"Now when we get up to 25 mph or so, the loudest thing we hear is the tire noise," as we turned onto East Washington Avenue.
Plug-in hybrids aren't mass produced yet, so it's tough to gauge a price point for the average person. MG&E paid about $9,000 to add the plug-in capabilities. Nonetheless, expect a plug-in to be more expensive than a standard hybrid.
After whatever the upfront cost is, the actual price to drive them can be impressive. At $4 a gallon for gas, a sedan that gets a modest 26 miles per gallon costs 15-cents a mile. A hybrid like a standard Prius gets about 48 mpg, meaning it costs about 9-cents a mile.
At MG&E's current rates, however, driving their plug-in hybrid in purely electric mode costs about 2-cents a mile.
Now let's get Down to Earth about this. Yes, a plug-in hybrid would take care of that issue of forgein oil. Remember though, the electrity to power it has to come from somewhere. Around here, it means you could be doing something that's not any greener.
"We're not selling the idea of electric vehicles on the greenness of it," admits Kraus. He is upfront that the power plants around here run on fossil fuels, mostly coal along with natural gas.
"But every single day the electric grid is getting cleaner and cleaner," advised Kraus. "Older plants are going offline, newer plants are coming on. They're much more efficient, much fewer emissions."
Kraus said he expects utilities will encourage people to plug-in their cars overnight, when there's unused capacity on the electric grid.
Last week, a University of Wisconsin engineering professor and car expert told us that works for the relative short term. "Until we as a society are using the power plants at full capacity at night," said Glenn Bower. "Then we have to build more power plants."
Kraus agreed. "We'll have to find a way to either build more plants, or probably look at using their plants more efficiently."
If plug-in's sound like a pipe dream, however, think again. General Motors and Volkswagen plan to start selling them in two years. Toyota and Ford are testing the concept.
MG&E is using its new plug-in hybrid so customers here will have a sense of their overall impact when the cars hit the mainstream. "We'll have some real live data right here in Madison, Wisconsin," said Kraus.
One of the first plug-in hybrid cars expected to hit the American market is the Chevy Volt, slated for a relatively limited production in late 2010, before production ramps up in 2011. On Tuesday, GM announced it is working with about 30 utility companies in the U.S. to learn how to deal with a future where large volumes of cars require plug-in capabilities.