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Tuesday, May 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Plug-in energy independence

Special to The Times

Imagine a car that gets more than 100 miles a gallon, reduces greenhouse gases and helps free America from its reliance on foreign oil. There is growing bipartisan support and interest for just that kind of car — a plug-in, flexible-fuel hybrid vehicle. And on June 1 at the Microsoft Conference Center, policymakers and the public will be able to see actual plug-in hybrid cars that can get 100 mpg, and hear experts discuss steps to help "end our addiction to foreign oil."

Like hybrids on the road today, such as the Toyota Prius, plug-in hybrid cars run on electric power with a gasoline (or biofuel) engine backup. The difference is that a plug-in hybrid can top off its batteries by plugging into the electric power system instead of using the gasoline engine for recharging. For shorter trips, such as commuting to work, the plug-in hybrid can get 100 miles to the gallon or more because it hardly needs to use the gas engine. The gas engine itself can become a "flexible fuel" engine running on ethanol blends or biodiesel blends, further reducing oil dependence.

A relatively small shift to plug-in hybrids could save Puget Sound drivers millions of gallons of gas a year and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by more than a million tons a year. Topping off hybrid batteries from the electric power grid is far more efficient than recharging from gasoline engine power — which is why carbon-dioxide emissions drop so much with plug-in hybrids.

But, it is the immediate threat to national security from foreign oil dependence that is finally driving strong bipartisan support for plug-in hybrid cars and similar measures. At next week's conference, former CIA Director James Woolsey and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., will be among those describing the national-security risk from reliance on unstable oil-producing nations; Brownback and others have sponsored legislation, backed by a coalition of labor and environmental groups, to accelerate production of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., will also speak on the coalition's efforts.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush also called for an end to our foreign oil addiction, and has rolled out initiatives including support for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

We can work to pull together an integrated Puget Sound transportation solution that would dramatically reduce gasoline use, increase transportation efficiency and cut greenhouse gases — and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. There are three steps we need to take now to get ahead of the curve.

First, we need to convene state and regional leaders in transportation, electric utilities and government to work together on a set of overall recommendations. For example, a cellphone-type chip could be required that allows recharging only during off-peak hours, in order to use our electric power system more efficiently. Hybrid bus transportation, including school buses, could be encouraged. (A few Washington state school districts have joined a national school bus plug-in hybrid campaign.) Corporate and government vehicle fleet purchases could be linked to the national "plug-in partners" campaign. Parking garages and park-and-ride lots could incorporate recharging stations.

Second, we need to encourage a Washington state-based transportation-technology industry to advance solutions such as using strong, lightweight composite materials for trucks and buses and shifting to complete electric-drive vehicles to save weight. Boeing is a world leader in composites and we have high-tech research centers such as Battelle and Energy Northwest to help develop technology solutions. Paccar last month announced an initiative to incorporate lightweight material and hybrid technologies in its trucks.

Biofuels, using renewable Washington state farm and forest products, can be further encouraged. Like biotech, transportation tech can become a hallmark of the Northwest economy.

Finally, we need to move fast. Plug-in hybrids can be ready to roll well within the planning horizon for regional transportation and power organizations. We need a thoughtful, integrated transportation approach now before we lose a once-in-a-generation chance at an integrated transportation solution.

Such a solution will also require thoughtful leadership to make sure we have the domestic electric power to move away from our dependency on oil while solving our commuting problems, especially in the Puget Sound basin.

Steve Marshall is chairman of the Municipal League of King County. Bruce Agnew is director of the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center, which is working on regional transportation solutions. The Cascadia Center and Microsoft are co-sponsoring the June 1 conference in Redmond with government, transportation and energy leaders.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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