UTILITIES:

Companies make big bets on electric vehicles

Duke Energy Corp. and FPL Group Inc., two of the nation's largest electric utilities, said today they will transition their entire automobile fleets to plug-in hybrid and full-electric vehicles.

The joint commitment, announced at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York, represents more than 10,000 automobiles. Swapping out the vehicles -- everything from sedans to big rigs -- has the potential to slash greenhouse gas emissions by more than 125,000 metric tons during the next decade, the companies claim.

"Our goal is to have all new vehicles purchased in 2020 be hybrid plug-in or all-electric to give manufacturers time to scale up," said Tom Williams, a Duke (NYSE: DUK) spokesman. "The real focus is to set a target to let the manufacturers know if they build it, we will come."

Juno Beach, Fla.-based FPL (NYSE: FPL) operates a fleet of 2,412 vehicles today, while Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke operates a fleet of 4,500 vehicles. The utilities plan to invest about $600 million combined in new vehicles and plug-in infrastructure.

Duke and FPL will begin overhauling their fleets next year and work with automakers to test prototype bucket trucks in 2011 and 2012. Duke is already working with Bright Automotive Inc., Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co.

"The biggest challenge will be the big rigs," said Williams, who explained that the only near-term options for plug-in electric vehicles are sedans, minivans, vans and a few bucket truck models. The typical lifespan for a new vehicle today is three to six years, he said.

Where FPL cannot use full-electric vehicles, the utility will attempt to use hybrid automobiles that use a combination of electricity and biodiesel, said Jackie Anderson, a company spokeswoman.

"The best of both worlds is to use plug-in hybrids on top of clean diesel," Anderson added. "They're not mutually exclusive."

China connection

News of the vehicle overhaul comes a day after Duke inked a clean-technology deal with ENN Group, one of China's largest privately held energy companies.

The deal includes the potential to develop utility-scale solar power projects in the United States. It also encompasses joint technology development of electricity from gasified coal and natural gas, as well as biofuels from algae.

Duke is building a 630-megawatt, gasified coal power plant in Edwardsport, Ind., which is slated to go online in 2012. The company is spending $17 million to study carbon capture at the power plant and is proposing to spend another $121 million to study the underground storage of up to 60 percent of its CO2 emissions.

Duke and ENN will explore how to efficiently capture CO2 at the Edwardsport plant and similar facilities, Williams said. Duke signed a similar technology-sharing deal with Beijing-based China Huaneng Group in August.

The memorandum leaves open the possibility of Duke -- the United States' third-largest electric utility -- and state-owned Huaneng developing projects jointly (Greenwire, Aug. 10).

Williams said working with Chinese companies is a major initiative for Duke, which hopes to announce additional partnerships in the near future. Duke has also hired a China adviser, who will have offices in Beijing and Washington, D.C.

"Things happen in China time," he added. "When China decides to do something, they do it quickly."

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