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Published: Saturday, 8/28/2010

Federal electric-car advocate applies beliefs to own vehicle


WASHINGTON - David Sandalow starts his five-mile commute each day by unplugging an orange extension cord connecting his Toyota Prius to an outlet in his carport.

His Prius, which was converted two years ago to allow him to recharge the battery from an electric outlet, gets more than 80 miles per gallon and lets him drive 30 miles on a single charge. He fills up his car with gasoline about once a month.

"If you're thirsty, you can get a Diet Coke or orange juice or water. If you're hungry you can get a hamburger or hot dog or a fruit plate. If you want to drive someplace, you only have one choice. You can use gasoline or petroleum-based products," said Mr. Sandalow, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for policy and international affairs. "It's strange that we are utterly dependent on this one fuel source for mobility."

Mr. Sandalow, a former Brookings Institution scholar, has helped shape the Obama Administration's ambitious plan to pump billions of dollars into partnerships aimed at developing cars running on electric power, creating an advanced battery industry, and helping communities prepare for the transition to electric-powered vehicles.

President Obama has pledged to bring 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to U.S. highways by 2015 and turned to the nascent battery industry as one of the hallmarks of his economic recovery plan.

The government recently estimated that a battery with a 100-mile range costs about $33,000, although federal stimulus funds could bring the costs down to $10,000 by the end of 2015. Concerns remain about the batteries' durability and longevity.

Mr. Obama pushed a $2.4 billion grant program to develop next-generation batteries, which could lead to 500,000 batteries a year by late 2014. A 2007 energy law, meanwhile, has led to billions in loans for automakers to retool their plants for fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric cars.

Mr. Sandalow, 53, was tapped for the Energy Department's top policy job after studying oil dependence, electric vehicles, and climate change at Brookings.

He concluded that electric cars and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles represented the quickest way to begin making the shift. With more than 240 million vehicles on the road, it will take years to turn over the fleet, but he noted that drivers with short commutes - like his own daily trip to the Energy Department from his home in Washington - could use electric power, recharging at night when electrical loads are low.

After his research, Mr. Sandalow decided to have an auto dealership convert his Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, into a plug-in hybrid. The $9,000 conversion, which was developed by Massachusetts battery maker A123Systems, allows him to recharge his battery from a standard 110-volt outlet in about six hours. His family owns another car but Mr. Sandalow said the Prius is used for long-distance travel as well.

Running the car on electricity, he said, costs the equivalent of about 75 cents a gallon of gasoline. "Electric cars are quiet, they're cheap to drive, they've got great pickup, and I think they're patriotic, also," he said. "That combination, I think, means they're the technology of the future."

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