St. Petersburg to test 'plug-in' hybrid cars in green partnership

ST. PETERSBURG — It begins with just four wheels, but city officials hope a new project to convert a hybrid automobile into a rechargeable electric car will pave the way for a green makeover of the city's fleet.

The partnership with Progress Energy is a test-run of an emerging technology. The plan is to take one of the city's 2008 Ford Escape hybrid vehicles and convert it to a "plug-in" electric hybrid.

While both kinds of hybrids use a combination of gas and battery power, plug-in electric hybrids, now available only through aftermarket conversion kits, are periodically recharged using an electrical station. The battery life is longer, meaning greater fuel economy and less greenhouse gas emissions.

The price tag of the two-year project, not counting the periodic recharging, is $37,000. But the utility will reimburse the city $28,000. The remaining $9,000 should be recouped in future fuel savings over the life of the conversion kit, said Mike Connors, the city's internal services administrator. The agreement also allows Progress Energy to plaster the car with a vinyl advertisement.

For the city, which several years ago launched a "green city" initiative ranging from mandating the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs to adopting earth-friendly energy policies, hybrid plug-ins are the way of the future, both for environmental and cost-saving concerns.

And for Progress Energy, which a spokesman said is actively preparing its customers for plug-in hybrid technology, the partnership is a door to the future.

"Ultimately, we would like to see the whole bay area plugged in and ready where people have safe, convenient public charging stations," said Scott Sutton, a spokesman. Sutton said the Tampa Bay area is "ripe for electric transportation, due to the number of commuters who travel 40 miles per day, an optimum distance" for the technology. He cited the Obama administration's incentives for greener cars, and plans by most automakers to unveil plug-in hybrids within years.

The discussions that led to the agreement began a year ago, but the pact was approved by the City Council last week. Council member Jeff Danner said the partnership is a potential windfall for the city.

"You want to do the things that reduce our carbon footprint and are right for the environment," Danner said. "We are looking four, five, 10 years into the future at how we can reduce operating expenses."

Of the 3,500 vehicles in the city's fleet, 19 are hybrids. Those include 14 Ford Escape sport utility vehicles and five Saturn Vues (Mayor Rick Baker is assigned one). Connors said there are no immediate plans to purchase more hybrids.

Progress Energy sponsored the nation's first plug-in hybrid school bus in Wake County, N.C., where the utility has its headquarters, in 2007.

The company says it has the Southeast's first plug-in electric bucket truck in its North Carolina fleet, added in 2008, and has a partnership with Ford to develop charging stations.

The project with St. Petersburg, which will last for two years, also calls for a report on efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The vehicle will log at least 9,000 miles a year, and the expected energy cost of recharging the car is about 11 cents per mile.

Connors said it was not decided which agency would get the car this year.

Connors, who also manages the city's green initiatives, said potential federal incentives are also appealing for the city.

"If we can get this kind of money to offset local taxpayer expenses," he said, " we will convert as many vehicles in our fleet as possible."

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

AT A GLANCE

How it works

Hybrid automobiles use a combination of gasoline and battery power to get better mileage from the engine.

Plug-in electric hybrids begin the same way, but use larger batteries that can be recharged from a standard outlet. Progress Energy says powering a car electrically can save as much as 50 to 75 percent on fueling costs compared with gasoline.

St. Petersburg to test 'plug-in' hybrid cars in green partnership 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:31am]

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