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Pay-as-you-go power

— Utilities are starting to think about electrical power the way phone companies think about cellular service, or the way gas companies think about filling stations - and it may not be long before you think that way, too.

The paradigm shift could come when plug-in electric cars (hybrid as well as all-electric) become a significant factor in the automotive market, as described in my Auto Tech story today. Some experts estimate that 19 million plug-in hybrids will be on U.S. roads by 2020 - and if even some of those drivers take their cars to work or go on an overnight trip, they'll probably want to charge up at their destination.

It's one thing to plug your laptop or cell-phone charger into someone else's outlet, but what about plugging in your car?

Rich Feldman, a senior policy adviser in Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' office, said utilities are already talking about an arrangement that would allow electricity users to bill battery fill-ups back to their home account.

"It's like the old cell network: It's a roaming benefit, to some degree," he said. "When I go to my mom's house, I want to charge up my car, but I don't necessariliy want it to show up on her electric bill."

Jim Francfort, a researcher at Idaho National Laboratory who studies the economics of plug-in vehicles, said the cost of a home battery charge is so low that Feldman's mom probably wouldn't care. At a cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, it just takes 50 cents' worth of electricity to charge up a plug-in hybrid Prius equipped with a Hymotion booster battery, he said.

At that price, you might even get away with charging up at the hotel down the highway. "If they're going to charge $150 for a hotel room, I don't see why they wouldn't give you 50 cents of electricity," Francfort said. "It's a marketing opportunity: 'Free charge for your plug-in.'"

When it comes to plug-ins, the real cost of charging up isn't necessarily tallied in money, but in time and convenience. It takes about four hours for a full recharge of the plug-in Prius with your typical 120-volt plug - and while that may be fine for an overnight stay at your mom's house, that might not work so well while you're at the office.

That's where filling stations could fill a role. Back in the 1990s, electric charging stations started to pop up to serve the expected wave of electric cars. (This was before GM's EV1 electric car was killed.) Now, companies such as California-based Coulomb Technologies are reviving the concept. Subscribers to Coulomb's Smartlet service can pull up, enter their code and plug into the juice while their car is parked on the street.

Up the road from California (and down the road from Seattle), Portland General Electric is installing free charging stations as part of a pilot project that has also brought in businesses such as Nike. Such stations could eventually become status symbols for eco-conscious companies.

Do such developments represent a paradigm shift for the electric grid? Will electric cars (and hybrids) finally break our dependency on oil? Or is all this merely a sideshow in the great energy debate?

We haven't really talked about where the electricity comes from - and that can range from coal-fired power plants, to nuclear, to certified wind power and rooftop solar (either on your house or on your car). You might want to address that side of the energy equation as well. So, feel free to weigh in with your comments on plug-in vehicles, pay-as-you-go electricity and other power plays.