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Plugging in, plugging on

Gov. Mike Easley created a little electricity last week when he announced that North Carolina would spearhead a new consortium that will try to improve battery technology and speed development of a “plug-in” car that could be recharged as quickly and easily as a cellphone.
The plug-in research hub, to be located on Centennial Campus in Raleigh, will involve the state, N.C. State University, Duke Power and Progress Energy. NCSU will seek startup funds (estimated at $5 million) from the U.S. Department of Energy, with Duke and Progress kicking in $3 million.
Though on a much smaller scale than the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, the battery project shares the biotech venture’s public-private DNA and futuristic ambitions. It’s also another step in the quest to enhance North Carolina’s image as a state where labs and think tanks are replacing looms and curing sheds as symbols of economic commerce. Yet, it also raises some questions, such as why the state picked this particular venture when a number of private companies and university-based research centers have a head start in the quest to build a better battery. And what about the longterm environmental impact if fleets of electric vehicles hook onto a power grid that sometimes struggles to meet existing power demands?
The first question is easier to answer than the second. There’s a major market ó and financial payoff ó for a battery system that offers increased storage capacity at a lower cost than the batteries used in current hybrid vehicles like Toyota’s Prius and the few plug-in electric or hybrid vehicles in use or under development, including GM’s Volt and the Tesla, an electric sportscar that has generated a lot of buzz in automotive circles. Universities, utilities and automakers all have a stake in solving this engineering problem, and it’s likely that optimum battery technology ó like maximum computing power ó will be a moving goal approached through incremental advances achieved over years and decades, rather than a sudden breakthrough. It’s still early enough to tap into the current.
The environmental questions aren’t as clearcut. Electric automotive power has the advantage of curbing tailpipe emissions, especially in areas of urban congestion where vehicles spend long periods of time idling or moving slowly. But plug-ins aren’t zero-emission vehicles because the power has to come from somewhere. And in North Carolina, most of the juice comes from coal-fired plants that pose well-known pollution issues. For now, the added drain on the grid is a hypothetical concern. But it won’t be theoretical if and when battery improvements make plug-in electrics as cost-competitive and practical as the cars now on our highways, and tens of thousands of motorists are recharging their batteries.
From steadily rising sales of hybrids, it’s clear that drivers want options that can reduce their fuel bills and their ecological footprints. Improve-ments in battery technology can help on both counts. But just as there’s no free lunch, there’s no free ride when it comes to plug-in technology. That makes it even more imperative that we keep plugging away at alternative technologies and improved emission systems for the coal plants powering our outlets.

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