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Can The Power Industry Bail Out Detroit?

Major electric utilities are mulling over whether to buy up—well, preorder—thousands of electric cars from U.S. automakers, reports The Wall Street Journal. Now, it's no surprise that utilities would love for plug-ins to become the future of transport—it means they can sell more electrons without having to build tons of new plants. (One federal study found that 73 percent of the nation's light vehicles could be recharged using existing infrastructure if the cars were plugged in overnight; doing so would replace about 52 percent of America's current oil imports.)

But, right now, utility execs appear worried that GM's collapse and the general financial malaise among carmakers could set back work on the electric car. So the idea is that power companies would buy up tens of thousands of vehicles for their own company fleets to help give Congress confidence that there will actually be a market for the cleaner cars that a bailed-out Detroit would have to promise to make. (Indeed, that's one lingering question in this debate: Even if Congress gave the automakers $25 billion and required the companies to build more fuel-efficient cars, who's to say anyone will actually buy the new models?)

Of course, utilities aren't necessarily just thinking about supporting plug-ins to prop up GM. One interesting point the Journal piece gets into is that utilities want to play a much bigger role in managing the shift to electrified transport, to ensure that it doesn't put strain on the grid the way that the sudden burst in popularity of air conditioners did after World War II, taking the power industry by surprise. Anyway, these talks are all very early and it's unclear whether anything will come of this—but it's worth keeping an eye on.

--Bradford Plumer