PG&E Could Use Electric Pickups to Back Up Grid

By · September 21, 2012

Via electric pickup

I always enjoy speaking with Dave Meisel, director of transportation at Pacific Gas &Electric. The guy is really into his job, which involves trying out all kinds of alternative fuels to see what might work for the Northern California utility. But he is especially high on cars that use grid-supplied electricity. “We have hundreds of hybrids and they work fine, but we are very interested in the plug-ins right now,” he told

PG&E is like a huge Petri dish for alternative fuel vehicles. It has 14,000 vehicles in its fleet, and is always looking for something new that provides more benefit than the tradition internal combustion engine. “We look at the technologies that are out there, and work with anybody that has technology they think is better,” said Meisel.

Right now, Meisel is feeling good about Via Motors Inc. The Orem, Utah-based company installs electric drivetrains in existing vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, turning the vehicle into what Via calls an “EREV” or extended range electric vehicle. It can be recharged by plugging in, but the internal generator can also recharge the battery.

A Truck That Could Power a Neighborhood

Via hooks a generator up to the car’s engine and installs a 24-kWh liquid-cooled battery pack. The EREVs can run up to 40 miles on pure electricity. But the piece de resistance, at least for PG&E, is that a Via EREV can also serve as an external power source. It can generate 25 kW of electricity right now but PG&E is working with other suppliers to push that up to 125 kW. (Actually, PG&E has already done that but “cooling is an issue,” said Meisel.)

He gets really excited when he talks about using a vehicle that can generate 125 kW of electricity. That amount of exportable power could vastly increase the reliability of a utility, he said. Most power outages are planned—the utility has to shut off the electricity while it repairs a downed line. “With 125 kW, we could run a neighborhood or a strip mall,” said Meisel. “Say we could pull the pickup truck up and hook into the transformer. We could power the neighborhood while we fixed the line,” he said.

So while Via pickups aren’t cheap at $79,000 –the price “in volume,” according the Via Motors website—the exportable power makes it worth the price, said Meisel. The generator is already on the truck. A small investment (included in the price) adds the exportable power function. That adds a second benefit, said Meisel. Then there are the fuel savings, he added. Meisel said he drove a Via pickup 164 miles and used slightly more than one gallon of gas. “It changes the cost-benefit model,” he says.

PG&E is working with other companies that make PEVs, including ALTe, Efficient Drivetrains Inc, and Quantum. The utility has taken a few models from each. It currently has three Via pickups and will get one more on Sunday. It will use those pickups in a variety of ways. If they pass that test, the utility will order 50 units, which will go out to various PG&E operators. If those guys give the Via pickup a thumbs up, PG&E will start ordering in real volumes.

Via is getting ready. It has a plant in Auburn Hills, Mich. that can produce one pickup every 30 minutes, said spokesman David West. He said Via is “engaged” with eight of the largest fleets in the U.S. Via is also aggressively expanding its engineering capacity. John Mullins, Via’s head of engineering, scooped up the engineering team at Enova when he left that company. He just hired some of defunct Azure’s software team, as well.


· · 5 years ago

It would be interesting to see a breakdown of PG&E's 14,000 vehicle fleet. How many are heavy duty, medium duty, light duty, each broken down by drivetrain type - Diesel, CNG, gas, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, etc. I can't remember the last time I saw a heavy duty PG&E truck that wasn't CNG powered.

· hybrid driver (not verified) · 5 years ago

If PG&E can do that with a truck, they should be collaborating with GM to use the Volt as an emergency generator for homes during power outages instead of stinky dirty noisy generators.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 5 years ago

@Hybrid driver

Well the volt does have that 55kw motor/generator in it, although I'm assuming that power rating is short term, probably measured in seconds. Even so, You would think they could get 10-14 kw out of the thing long term to provide a few hours of power for a house. Anyone have any idea as to the number of POLES that motor #2/generator has? I specifically asked the question on another blog to which I never got an answer. Here it matters since the home would need either 50 or 60 cycle. If the thing generated 400 hz normally then 60 would cause the engine to run much too slowly and it would be impossible to do. So that's why it mattered. But let's suppose it is doable.

Think of all the added work Electricians would get installing transfer switches and a 60 amp recepticle on the outside of people's homes to be able to use that facility!

· · 5 years ago

@Bill Howland,
Today, it really doesn't make sense to constrain the design of the generator to care about the output frequency because power electronics are so cheap and efficient. The generator should just output the optimal power and let modern digital power electronics convert it to DC and then to AC at the right frequency, phase, voltage, power factor, etc.
I love the idea but I suspect the power companys will hate it just as they hate home PV arrays since they lose control.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 5 years ago


Well your're richer than I am and most volt owners. They do sell inverter output generators but they are significantly more expensive, especially in the 10-14 kw range as stated. Interesting that the natural gas GENSETS people buy do not have that added complication. Reason? Competitive Pricing pressure, plus there's no point in the decreased efficiency/added complication to add a Cycloconverter.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 5 years ago


Just checked the honda website (johnny come lately?), and they want $3900 for a 5000 watt inverter generator, with very poor overload capacity (assumedly due to the inverter limitation). I paid $380 for my 5500 watt (easily 8000 watt surge) for my chinese special. For home use, if the thing isn't cheap, there's no point in it since no one will buy it.. Unless you run an expensive marketing campaign to sell SEX and generators at the same time, which granted has been done successfully before..

Be interesting to see how VIA does it. And how much they currently charge for the option. If you have to run the engine to get the power ( I think thats the way it works) then there's no point in a 3 point link. An economization would be to use a Cycloconverter. But as stated there's no real point.

· · 5 years ago

@Bill Howland,
I admit that I don't understand the economics of the commodity gas generator market. I just know how cheap inverter hardware can be and how efficient generators can be if you aren't trying to match any particular frequency output.
I was, however, responding to your question about the makeup of the Volt's generator. I'd guess that it already has the DC conversion in it so all one would need would be an inverter to convert the DC from the battery/generator to AC, synchronized with the line.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 5 years ago


Ok, maybe its time to get down to Brass Tacks. I'll answer my own questions with some guesstimates. (GM may not have done it this way, but I bet they did something close).
GM either used a plain induction motor or an ac brushless Synchronous motor for at least motor #2( a small ac brushless feed for motor #2's excitation would help adjust voltages - but thats later) (note: EITHER style can run 'in synchronism' with the engine, as noted on the deep dive videos ==>> just trying to anticipate the question).

I believe motor #2 usually runs around 1/3 the speed of motor # 1 given a constant speed for the car. Reason? Motor #1 spins the SunGear, and #2 the Ring. Things aren't exact here since either motor spinning makes the car go faster, In other words if #1 is the workhorse it spins at 6000 rpm, if #2 is the workhouse it spins at 2000. If motor #1 was 2 poles and # 2 was 6 poles (motor #2 may actually be only 4 poles) then both machines could run at around 100hz (a reasonable Drive frequency for each of the independent inverters since each has to be independently controllable).

To output 60HZ directly, motor #2 could be spun at around 1200 rpm (1800 rpm if 4 poles), (here a ac brushless excitation style machine would help greatly since excitation of a purely induction generator is HARD . I dont know if that machine is WYE or DELTA connected, but lets assume Delta (it makes utilization of power take off voltages reasonable). So that the machine doesn't magnetically saturate, the volts/hz ratio must not exceed what it is at 2000 rpm/ 100hz, so that means for 60 hz we're gonna have to lower the voltage a little. For power take off use, that would mean reconfiguring the connection (matters little whether you use HexFets or relays) to be WYE when doing the emergency generator thing, and have each winding put out 120 vac, and spin the engine at 1200 (or 1800 rpm if a 4 pole machine) . (since we are only taking 14 kw, the engine can develop 20 hp at that speed I would think. If not, lower the power to 10kw). 2 of the 3 phases would be used giving 120 Y/208 'single phase' to the house.

Any AC to DC conversion (such as now only used for regeneration/battery sustaining mode) - J1772 charging is handled entirely seperately by the single phase 3300 watt charger near the right headlight).is not performed at motor #2, but is performed by the voltec inverter/rectifier system nearby.

I guess what Im saying is that Motor # 2 (aka the generator) almost certainly is just a 4 or 6 pole 3 phase machine, and only deals with 3 phase AC coming out of it or going to it, depending on whether it is a motor or generator at the time.

It should be possible to take an existing Volt and without much work at all, to get 10,000 watts emergency job site power out of the thing with the engine running at 1200 rpm, (or 1800 rpm if motor #2 is 4 pole) and have the output be a reasonable 120/208 single phase, (3 phase 120/208 is just as easy).

· · 5 years ago

@Bill Howland,
To me, the critical issue is; What RPM and torque does the ICE run most efficiently at? For stationary emergency power applications, I'd think you would want to run the ICE in its most efficient 'happy place' (-: technical term :-), then supply DC to either the battery or to an inverter as demanded by the AC load. if insufficient AC load exists and the battery is full, you can then shut off the ICE.
You might as well take advantage of that wonderful hybrid you've got there.
Although I'm not an expert in the area of generators, a friend of mine is working on the problem for the US Army'd field energy. They end up running their generators very inefficiently because of variable loads or under load. They would love to have a nice big battery pack already attached to enable load management like the Volt does so they wouldn't waste so much precious diesel fuel.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 5 years ago


If your friend is in Afghanistan mostly I'd say that most of the diesel is blown up before it ever gets to where he is. Sounds like in that case a honda style generator is what they need, since although full load efficiency is about 10% less, overall its much better if it spends much of the day at 5% load or whatever. Running off of batteries is much harder since you have the battery charging inefficiency of the electronics and battery itself, then the battery resistance on discharge, then the inverter inefficiency. The volt seems to have rather high overall efficiency as these things go. Worst is probably my Tesla. Running the electric heater OVERALL is quite costly, since you need alot more kwh going into the thing then you actually get out from the heater. The priime 'visual' example is when you start charging and those 2 big fans on the front of the car start ROARING and shoveling out huge amounts of Electric Heat to the outside that I've just paid for. In the summertime or in a hot garage, it only gets worse from there since you also have the electric airconditioner and pumps working to keep the battery cooler.

Everything for the military is usually so overbuilt that maybe they can get along with something smaller and it will handle their peak loads and the valleys and use much less diesel overall. Or if this is somewhat larger equipment what is typically done is the units are parallelled (using either automatic or manual synchronizers using light bulbs) so that the generator is more matched to the current load. That would be the most efficient of all.

· · 5 years ago

I don't ever see PG&E connecting this truck to the grid to provide emergency power. The amount of electricity they would sell would not cover the cost of the hardware, the cost to drive it out to the location, the cost to connect it to the broken grid and make sure worker can still work on the line, and the cost of the driver to sit there while it was running. PG&E has a monopoly. They are like the government. They aren't going to lose business just because they provided poor service.


· Homer10 (not verified) · 5 years ago

This company should try to partner up with a solar panel manufacturer. they could offer a totally independent solution.

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 5 years ago


Thankfully I'm not a PG&E customer (my own National Grid isn't much better, but at least the juice is cheaper), but the article stated that most outages are planned and they need to provide backup power for critical customers like dialysis patients, polio iron lung patients, etc, that can't tolerate more than a few seconds of outage.

Let's say PG&E wants to change a lightning arrester. They hook up the truck to the meter socket of the house that has the critical customer, then do their work, then restore everything back to normal. If they would normally drive a pickup or van to the customer's premises anyway, I can see where that would be a mild economy. This feature is just icing on the cake of a great Truck Idea.

You could say they could always just carry a small generator around with them, or make other arrangements. That's true. The big advantage with the VIATRUX is gas savings and maintenance savings. The engine lasts twice as long since it only runs half the time. Fuel savings are huge compared even to high priced california electricity.

It is an idea whose time has come. And no, I don't currently own stock in VIA

· Romana Adams (not verified) · 5 years ago

Wow, surprisingly I never knew this.I have been reading your blog a lot over the past few days and it has earned a place in my bookmarks.Thanks for sharing with us.

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