Page last updated at 21:29 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 22:29 UK

Plug-in hybrid boosts electric motoring

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

Toyota has launched trials of the UK's first petrol-electric hybrid car that can also be plugged into the mains. Soon drivers should be able to choose between the petrol pump and the electric socket to power one and the same car.

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Toyota engineer Gerald Killmann test drives the plug-in hybrid car.

The launch could mark a dramatic change in how drivers spend money on automotive "juice", as the power generation industry - be they coal fired power stations such as Drax or nuclear power firms such as British Energy - enters the market.

Electricity company EDF Energy is erecting "juice points", or electric charging points, across London.

And it is not alone.

At this summer's London motor show, Mayor Boris Johnson vowed to start rolling out charging points over the next couple of years, and the government is eager to support a gradual shift from oil-based to electric transport.

"We can see the future unfold ahead of us," grins John Hutton, UK secretary of state for business, enterprise and regulatory reform.

Best of both worlds

Pure electric cars have been around for a long time, offering two pence a mile motoring, lower insurance, and exemptions from both road tax and congestion charges, says Nigel Wonnacott from the Nice Car Company during a drive through London's congested streets.

Toyota plug-in hybrid
It's the best of both worlds
Toyota Motor's head of hybrids, Koei Saga

"Here we are, doing two miles per hour and there are all these performance cars ahead of us, doing exactly the same thing whilst spewing out fumes," he says.

But so far, electric car ownership has been very much about accepting compromises in terms of speed and handling, as well as range.

The Nice car's battery, which takes seven hours to charge, runs out of juice after about 40 miles, according to Mr Wonnacott, so owners chose to own a second car for longer journeys.

So far, Toyota's existing hybrid technology, as used in its popular Prius models, has not offered a comparable alternative to electric cars.

Its batteries are charged by a petrol engine, and as such the Prius merely offers improved fuel economy on par with many modern diesel engines.

John Hutton
Mr Hutton believes in the electrification of transport

The plug-in hybrid aims to combine the benefits of the two.

While driving an early trial version in London, it became clear that the batteries run out after just six miles before switching to petrol, though this range could be extended relatively simply by adding more batteries, in accordance with customers' taste for added weight, longer charge times and extra expense.

Nevertheless, put simply, the idea is that the plug-in hybrid can be used as a conventional electric car for urban commuting during the week, and then as a petrol-powered car for weekends away.

"It's the best of both worlds," grins Toyota Motor's head of hybrids, Koei Saga.

Improved economics

Such a development would be bad news for the oil industry.

Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Group
Our industries can jointly tackle the global challenge of climate change
Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Group

Gradually, as ever more car journeys are powered by electricity rather than by internal combustion engines, the power generation companies will be chipping away at the dominance of oil majors such as ExxonMobil, Shell and BP.

And not just in the world of motoring, where the introduction of more powerful lithium-ion batteries is accelerating this shift towards electric power.

Public transport is changing too, with train companies increasingly squaring up to the airlines by offering fast and comfortable alternatives on ever more routes.

This "electrification of transport" is particularly good news for the nuclear industry, which will see its share of the overall energy mix grow dramatically in the years ahead, both in the UK and across the world, according to John Ritch, director general of the World Nuclear Association.

But renewable energy sources, such as wind or wave power, also stand to gain as the power they generate during stormy nights can be sold to commuters, who should even see their household energy bills come down as a consequence of more of the electricity that is being produced during the night finding a market.

"This may impact on the economics of new renewables," according to Peter Hofman, director of sustainable future at EDF Energy.

Climate change

Though in the end (leaving aside well publicised concerns about the safety, viability and cost of nuclear) the main beneficiary of the switch from carbon-based to electric transport will be the environment.

Nice Car Company electric vehicle
Electric cars are good in cities, but not for longer trips

Though even with the current contribution from fossil fuels to UK power production, which is currently relatively high, Toyota's plug-in hybrid offers a 40% reduction in overall CO2 emissions compared with conventional petrol vehicles, according to Mr Hofman.

"With nuclear you could see reductions of up to 70%," he adds, hinting at well advanced plans to build a string of new nuclear plants in the UK.

Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Group - the French state-controlled nuclear power giant that owns EDF Energy and that is currently in talks to buy the UK nuclear company British Energy - is eager to stress the benefits of a gradual switch from coal and gas to nuclear power.

"Alongside the energy sector, the transport sector is one of the main contributors to climate change," he insists.

"Our industries can jointly tackle the global challenge of climate change."


SEE ALSO
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