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 PluginCars.com.

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.

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